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James-Lange & Cannon-Bard Theories of Emotion

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  • 0:01 Theories of Emotions
  • 0:22 The James-Lange Theory
  • 1:47 The Cannon-Bard Theory
  • 3:39 The Schachter-Singer Theory
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michele Chism

Michele is presently a part time adjunct instructor at Faulkner University in the Counselor Education Department where she teaches Measurement and Assessment and Diagnosis and Treatment. I formerly taught at the University of West Alabama where I taught School Counseling and College Student Development Counseling. I was also the Student Success Coordinator for the College of Education.

Have you ever wondered whether we have a bodily reaction or an emotional reaction to an event first? We will be looking at some theories from James-Lange, Cannon-Bard, and Schatchter-Singer that ask that same question.

Theories of Emotions

In this lesson, we will be learning about theories of emotions. So what are emotions? Emotion is a feeling that involves thoughts, physiological changes, and an outward expression of behavior, such as facial expressions. Okay, but which comes first - the thought (or the physiological arousal) or the behavior? That's what scientists wanted to find out.

The James-Lange Theory

The earliest studies into emotion were introduced simultaneously but independently by William James and Carl Lange. They came up with the same idea at the same time, around 1884-1887. The theory states that emotion is not directly caused by the perception of an event, but rather by the bodily response caused by the event. In order to experience an emotion, we must first have a bodily response, and then we experience the emotion.

So, for instance, if I see a poisonous snake, my heart would race and then I experience fear, and I run away. Only after our interpretation of the arousal can we experience the fear. If we do not experience arousal or it is not noticed, we will not experience emotion.

Until the development of another theory - the Cannon-Bard theory - the James-Lange theory was one of the most predominant theories of emotion. While the theory is largely discounted by modern researchers, there are some instances where physiological responses do lead to the experience of emotions, such as in the development of panic disorders or some phobias.

For instance, a person may trip and fall down in public, which leads to emotional reactions, such as feeling anxious. If an association is formed between the situation and emotional states, the individual might begin avoiding anything that might trigger that particular emotion.

The Cannon-Bard Theory

Walter Cannon and his graduate student, Phillip Bard, thought the James-Lange Theory was flawed and challenged it in the 1920s. They disagreed with James-Lange and proposed three reasons why:

  1. People can experience physiological arousal without experiencing emotion, such as the response after running. If you have been running, your heart is racing, and you are breathing heavier, but you are not having an emotional reaction to it.

  2. Physiological reactions happen too slowly to cause experiences of emotion. If you are in the woods, a sudden sound usually creates an immediate response of fear, while the physical symptoms of fear generally follow that feeling, not precede it.

  3. People can experience very different emotions when they have the same pattern of physiological arousal. For instance, a person may have a racing heart and rapid breathing when angry or when afraid.

The Cannon-Bard Theory argues that we experience physiological arousal and emotion at the same time. The theory gives more attention to the role of thought or outward behavior than did James-Lange.

Cannon performed experiments on cats. He found that emotion occurs even if the brain was not connected to information about bodily responses, which are similar. He also found that the same bodily responses accompany many different emotions. When your heart is racing, you may be excited or angry or in love. This means our brain cannot just rely on our bodily responses to know which emotion they are experiencing.

Cannon-Bard concluded that the experience of an emotion does not depend on input from the body and how it is responding. The experience, the emotion, and the bodily response occur at the same time independent of each other but not because of physiological responses.

The Schachter-Singer Theory

In the 1960s, Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer hypothesized 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. They said that people's experience of emotion depends on two factors: physiological arousal and cognitive interpretation of arousal.

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