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Two-Factor Theory of Emotions: Definition and Relation to the Misattribution of Arousal

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  • 0:05 Two-Factor Theory of Emotions
  • 1:40 Schachter's Experiment
  • 3:08 Misattribution of Arousal
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Psychologists have found two parts of emotion: the physiological symptoms and the thoughts that define what we are feeling. In this lesson, we'll learn more about the two-factor theory of emotion and a related phenomenon, the misattribution of arousal.

Two-Factor Theory of Emotions

Think about a time when you felt scared. Maybe you were walking down a dark street and heard someone coming up behind you. Maybe you were in a quiet place and heard a loud bang. Imagine what your body felt like at that moment: your heart probably sped up, your hands got sweaty, your breath got more shallow. These are all signs that you are scared.

What causes emotions? Why do you sometimes feel happy and sometimes feel angry? What causes fear?

There are really two things going on with emotions: your body's response to the situation (like when your heart started racing in the dark street) and your cognitive assessment of your emotion, or the thoughts that tell you what emotion you are experiencing. Stanley Schachter, a famous psychologist, proposed the two-factor theory of emotions, which said that people label their emotions according to their environment and their physiological cues.

So, for example, when your heart started racing and your palms began to sweat, you needed to know why you felt that way. Looking around, you realized that you were on a dark street and someone was coming up behind you, so you concluded that you were feeling afraid.

But, what if your heart was racing and your palms were sweaty, but instead of being on a dark street, you were kissing someone that you find very attractive? The physiological symptoms are the same, but now the environment gives you a different cue; now, you might conclude that you are feeling lust.

Schachter's Experiment

Schachter did a classic experiment to demonstrate the two-factor theory of emotions. In the experiment, participants were given an injection of either adrenaline or a placebo and told that it was a drug to test their eyesight. Some of the participants were told that they might experience side effects similar to that of adrenaline: racing heart, shaking hands, or a warm and flushed face. Other participants were not told of any side effects or were told to expect some side effects but not the real ones.

After that, the participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire. While they were filling it out, a researcher pretending to be a subject came into the room and also began filling out the questionnaire. The researcher acted very angry, making comments and pacing around the room. By the time he was finished filling out the questionnaire, the researcher was in a rage.

The subjects that were given adrenaline and were not informed of the side effects felt more angry than those who were given adrenaline and informed of the side effects or those who were given the placebo.

Because they were feeling the effects of anger, like a racing heart and shaking hands, and they didn't know about the side effects of the drug, they had to find another reason to tell them what their symptoms meant. The researcher acting angry was an environmental cue, and so they concluded that they were angry when really, they were just under the influence of adrenaline.

Misattribution of Arousal

Remember how we said that the physiological symptoms of fear and lust are similar? So, what happens if our environmental cues make us think that we're aroused when really, we're afraid?

When people feel one emotion but think it's another emotion, it is called misattribution of arousal. A classic study of misattribution of arousal was done a few years after Schachter's study by Donald G. Dutton and Arthur P. Aron.

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