James Lange Theory of Emotion

Caroline Ntara, Shamekia Thomas
  • Author
    Caroline Ntara

    Caroline Ntara has over 10 years of experience teaching Economics and Business courses at high school, college and university levels. She is finalizing a Doctorate in International Trade and Business at Monarch Business School Switzerland. She has an MBA in International Business and a bachelor's degree in Economics. Her certifications include CPA and TEFL/TESOL.

  • Instructor
    Shamekia Thomas

    Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Learn what the James-Lange theory of emotion implies about the connection between the human body and emotions. See examples of how the James-Lange theory works. Updated: 10/28/2021

Table of Contents


What is the James-Lange Theory of Emotion?

The James-Lange theory of emotion is an analysis of emotions in modern psychology that discusses the origin and nature of emotions. Questions like what causes emotions, what is the purpose of emotions, and how to control emotions, are among the ideas that intrigued William James and Carl Lange. This physiological theory of emotion suggests that an emotional stimulus triggers a physical reaction and the interpretation of that reaction leads to emotion.

Humans are emotional beings and their feelings have evolved over the years to help them understand the world. Human emotions are triggered every day. Therefore, learning about emotions is an integral part of human life, as it assists people in managing their various feelings. There have been debates and pieces of research concerning emotions, and the main concern is investigating what this concept means in human life. The James-Lange theory notes that emotions are challenging for humans and it is critical to find effective ways of handling them.

An example of one of the questions James and Lange were trying to solve is: Do people cry because they are sad, or are they sad because they cry? James and Lange would say people are sad because they cry.

Background of William James and Carl Lange

William James was an American psychologist born in 1884. Carl Lange was a Danish psychologist born in 1887. The two psychologists worked on independent theories of emotion at around the same time. These theories were later combined to form the James-Lange theory of emotion. In their individual theories, they both proposed that emotions come about as a result of physical arousal. James gave more emphasis on the idea that emotions are a consequence of physical arousal. Lange noted that emotion was an indication of physical change.

How the James-Lange Theory Works

There are three steps to emotion under the James-Lange theory:

  • Emotional stimulus - First, a person encounters an emotional stimulus. For example, a snake.
  • Physical arousal - Next, the person has a physical reaction - they start shaking or trembling at the sight of the snake.
  • Emotion - Finally, the person interprets their physical reaction (trembling) as fear.

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James-Lange Theory Examples

As established by James and Lange, external stimulus results in various bodily responses.

  • A person walking in the woods meets with a lion. The person's heartbeat increases rapidly; they sweat and begin to tremble. According to James-Lange's theory of emotion, the person interprets these reactions as fright and is afraid.

A person may start trembling at the sight of a lion


  • A person receives a gift that they really wanted. The person has anticipated this gift for a long time and they smile and appear generally radiant. The person interprets their smile as indicating happiness and so they are happy.

Receiving a gift makes a person happy

Man receiving Gift

  • A person sees an unknown figure in the dark. The person trembles, their heart races, and they are unable to cry out. The person interprets these reaction as fearful, and so they feel afraid.

Seeing a person in the darkness can cause fear

Person dark place

James-Lange Theory Criticisms

There are various theorists and psychologists that question the James-Lange theory of emotion. It is important to note that James-Lange did not conduct any empirical research to establish this theory; hence, their claims could not be disputed easily. Two psychologists who criticized James and Lange's work were Walter Cannon and Philip Bard. In the Cannon-Bard view of emotion, emotions occurred alongside bodily response contradicting the idea of James-Lange that the physical reaction comes first, then the interpretation of that reaction leads to emotion.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a strength of the James-Lange theory?

James-Lange was one of the earliest theories of emotion and it recognized that there was a link between emotional stimulus, physical reactions, and emotions.

How does the James-Lange theory work?

A person sees an emotional stimuli (they see an adorable puppy). The person has a physical reaction (smiling, skipping, laughing). They will interpret their physical reactions as indicating happiness and they will feel happy.

What is an example of James-Lange theory?

When a person receives shocking news and they start sobbing uncontrollably, they interpret their sobbing as sadness and feel sad.

How does the James-Lange theory explain emotion?

The James-Lange theory of emotion notes that a physical reaction comes first, then the interpretation of that reaction leads to emotion. The theory adds that human beings are emotional and this helps them to understand the world around them.

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