We all know and experience how powerful
’emotions’ are and how they affect everyday activities and behavior. While we
all collectively experience a broadly similar range of emotions (happiness,
fear, sadness and so on), individually we do not necessarily experience the
same emotion as others in the same situation, or indeed the same emotion every
time the situation is the same – so are emotions interpretations of situations
and bodily sensations or are they driven by something else. This is a much
harder question to answer than it might seem, with multiple theories spanning
many scientific disciplines.
Generally, there are three large
categories: physiological, neurological, and cognitive. Physiological theories
propose only physical responses in the body play a part in emotion, whereas
neurological theories believe it is the brain and cognitive theories believe
emotions arise from thoughts.
This report presents an overview of four
major theories of emotions, based upon a presentation given in December 2017.
The James-Lange Theory
In the 1880s, William James and Carl Lange
both proposed that a physiological theory; that emotions occur because of
physiological reactions to events (such as heart rate increases, muscle
tension, sweating and so on) and the emotion felt will depend upon the
interpretation of the physical response. The sequence is:
As an example, in a dangerous situation
(the trigger) the physiological symptom might be an elevated heart rate, shaking
and sweating. These physical signs are
interpreted as fear (the emotion) – that you are not having these symptoms
because you are frightened, but that you feel frightened because you are
experiencing the symptoms.
The Cannon-Bard Theory
Dating to the 1920/30s, the Cannon-Bard theory
asserts that the experience of emotion happens at the same time as the
physiological arousal and neither one causes the other; that physiological and
emotional changes occur simultaneously in response to a stimulus:
Schachter-Singer Two-Factor Theory
A more recent theory from the early 1960s
is the Schachter and Singer two-factor theory. A bit like the James-Lange
theory, physiological responses are involved but the major difference is the
cognitive interpretation used to use to label the emotion.
In this theory the physiological arousal
occurs first, without a trigger or obvious explanation and then the individual
will attempt to label or describe the state based on the explanations available
in the immediate environment or situation.
The sequence is:
Similarly, the body’s physical reaction can
occur because of the cognitive appraisal or evaluation
Like the Cannon-Bard theory, the
Schachter-Singer theory also suggests that similar physiological responses can
produce varying emotions. For example, racing heart and sweating palms during
an important math exam, you will probably identify the emotion as anxiety. If
you experience the same physical responses on a date you might interpret those
Lazarus’ Cognitive Appraisal Theory
According to appraisal theories of emotion,
thinking occur first before experiencing emotion. Lazarus explains how
cognition and emotion are interrelated to each other through the cognitive
mediational theory of emotion.
His theory focuses on the role of
“appraisal, which is an unconscious, automatic process occurring in the brain,
in which assessment of a situation and the affects it may have lead to a
physiological response, and a simultaneous emotion. This theory recognizes that
everyone has a different cognitive appraisal and therefore response.
For example, in formulating his theory Lazarus performed experiments in which
participants were shown disturbing film footage with different voice-overs;
those who were exposed to the voice-over suggesting the film was traumatic were
found to be more anxious than those told it was harmless.
Schacter and Singer performed an experiment
which tested how people use clues in their environment to explain physiological
changes. Their hypotheses were
If a person experiences a state
of arousal with no obvious explanation, they will describe their emotions in
terms of the cognitions available to them at the time.
If a person experiences a state
of arousal for which they have an appropriate explanation they won’t readily
look for an alternative explanation.
In a situation which has
previously provoked an emotion, a person will only feel an emotion if they are
already physically aroused.
The participants were taken to a private
room by the experimenter and told that the aim of the experiment was ‘to look
at the effects of vitamin injections on visual skills. The participants were
given an injection of ‘Suproxin’ which was actually either adrenalin, which
causes physiological changes (increase in blood pressure, heart rate and so on
which are often experienced as palpitations, flushing and faster breathing) or
a placebo, and split into four groups:
Adrenalin Ignorant –
participants were given an adrenalin injection and not told of the effects of
Adrenalin Informed –
participants were given an adrenalin injection and were warned of the genuine
effects of adrenalin and were therefore prepared for the physical responses.
Adrenalin Misinformed –
participants were given an adrenalin injection and told to expect incorrect
side effects, such as numb feet and headache.
These participants would, therefore, not be expecting the effects of the
Control Group – Placebo
Participants were then allocated to either
the ‘euphoria’ condition or the ‘anger’ condition., in which a stooge in a
waiting either amused the participants or angered them to induce an emotion.
In the euphoria condition the misinformed
participants were feeling happier than all the others., followed by the
ignorant group. This demonstrates that
these participants were more susceptible to the induced emotion because they
had no explanation of why their bodies felt as they did. The informed group felt the least happy
because they had an explanation for the emotion.
In the anger condition, the ignorant group
felt the angriest, followed by the placebo group whilst the least angry group
was those who were informed, showing that participants were more susceptible to
induced emotion when they had no explanation of why their body felt as it
This result gives credence to the idea that
both physiological and cognitive processes are involved in emotions as does
another interesting experiment – the Dutton and Aron bridge experiment in which
the male participants were subjected to ‘terror’ – crossing a wobbly, long
suspension walkway hanging more than 200 feet above a river. As they crossed,
an attractive female approached them and asked for help in completing a
questionnaire and gave each man her name and number and asked him to call her
to hear more. More than half of the men who had been interviewed on the bridge
later called the woman.
In contrast, men approached by the same
woman on a low solid bridge, or who were interviewed on the suspension bridge
by men, called significantly less frequently. The idea of misattribution of
arousal can explain this result—the men were feeling arousal from the height of
the bridge, but they misattributed it as romantic or sexual attraction to the
woman, making them more likely to call her.
It seems clear that these studies support
the idea that emotion arises from not only physiological causes but have both
cognitive and neurological components – emotions are fundamentally affected by
how we label and interpret them; however, proving this could be problematical.
An obvious ‘common sense’ flaw with the
James-Lange theory is that people experience physiological reactions that
James-Lange linked to emotions without actually feeling those emotions – after
all, people often experience increased heart rate and sweating when they are
exercising but they don’t feel it as fear.
Additionally, there are a limited number of
physiological states, but these are correlated with a large number of different
emotions – for example an increased heart rate plays a part in many emotions
and it is clear that physiological arousals alone do not induce emotion. This
has been confirmed experimentally by researchers such as Lisa Feldman Barrett (Barrett, Emotions are Real, 2012), who
used electrical stimulation to test this theory and found no correlation
between physiological triggers and emotion.
So we can conclude that emotion is more
than a physiological response – but what more?
Physiological changes can be probed,
monitored, assessed and controlled but we have no such mechanism for emotions
which are highly subjective. We rely on our language and perception skills, but
usage and cultural conventions actually prevent a scientific, verifiable and
comparable assessment – after all, when we say ‘I am afraid the doctor can’t
see you today’ or ‘I was literally terrified’ it doesn’t actually