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Cannon-Bard Theory Of Emotion: Example, Overview

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  • 0:01 Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion
  • 0:58 Development of the Theory
  • 1:48 Three Theories
  • 2:58 But, It's Complicated
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chevette Alston

Dr. Alston has taught intro psychology, child psychology, and developmental psychology at 2-year and 4-year schools.

Learn about the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion and how it differs from two other founding theories of emotion. Then, test your understanding with a quiz.

The Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion explains how physiology influences emotions. It was actually a compilation of work from Walter Cannon (1871-1945) and Philip Bard (1898-1977). Their theory was that we simultaneously experience emotions and physiological reactions. Physiological reactions are reactions of the body such as muscle tension, sweating, and trembling.

Essentially, their hypothesis is that emotions result when brain systems such as the thalamus signals a response to a stimulus. Among other things, the thalamus influences motor control, auditory or visual signals, and the sending of sensory signals. The end result is the physiological reaction. For example, if you see a spider, you become afraid, and at the same time, you may scream or tremble.

Development of the Theory

Walter Cannon criticized the James-Lange theory, which hypothesized that emotion is not directly caused by the perception of an event, but by the body's response caused by the event. Through experimentation, Cannon discovered that emotion occurs even if the brain was not connected to information about body responses. He also argued that body responses are similar. For example, your heart races whether you are excited or angry. Those are two different emotions, but the body's reaction is the same.

Philip Bard agreed with Cannon, and together they concluded that the experience of emotion does not depend on input from the body and how it responds. Again, the experience of emotions and physiological responses occur at the same time, but not because of physiological responses.

Three Theories

There are several theories to explain how emotions occur, but there are only three that are the foundation of research and discussion. The first and oldest is the James-Lange theory, which states that we first experience body responses that correspond with emotion. The second is the Cannon-Bard theory. The third is the Schachter-Singer theory. The Schachter-Singer theory hypothesizes that experiencing an emotion requires both body responses and an interpretation of the body's response by taking into consideration the situation the person is in at the time.

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