James-Lange Theory of Emotion

Background of James-Lange Theory of Emotion

American psychologist William James (1884) and Danish physiologist Carl Lange (1887) independently proposed the oldest theories of emotion at approximately the same time. Their two theories were later combined into what is presently known as James-Lange Theory of Emotion. James and Lange proffer the same point that emotions are results of physiological reactions to external events. James’ research gave more attention to emotion as consequent effect of a physiological change, while Lange’s theory gave more attention to emotion as the demonstration of a physiological change. Nevertheless, both scientists presented the idea that emotion does not start with conscious experience of an affect.

James-Lange Theory of Emotion

The theory basically states that emotion is equivalent to the range of physiological arousal caused by external events. The two scientists suggested that for an individual to feel emotion, one must first experience bodily responses such as increased respiration, increased heart rate, or sweaty hands. Once this physiological response is recognized, then a person can say that he feels the emotion. For example, when a scary dog barks at a person, the person may then feel an increase in heart rate. By observing this change, the brain will comprehend that the person is experiencing fear.

People experience situations and events that result in physiological reactions such as muscular tension, heart rate increase, perspiration, dryness of the mouth, and many others, which are created by the autonomic nervous system. This theory suggests that emotions are a result of these physiological responses, and not their cause.

When stimuli that can induce emotions are received and comprehended by the cortex of the brain, the visceral organs and the skeletal muscles are triggered by the autonomic nervous system and somatic nervous system, respectively. The autonomic and somatic systems will then stimulate the brain, which will be interpreted as an experience of emotion. The theory inverted the typical common-sense way of thinking about the cause and effect relation between the experience of emotion and its manifestation. James and Lange emphasized that the autonomic activity and actions that are induced by emotional stimuli generate the feeling of emotion, not the other way around.

Common-Sense View
Perception of bull → Feeling of fear → Physiological reactions

James-Lange View
Perception of bull → Physiological reactions → Feeling of fear

When a person sees a bull, perception of emotion-arousing stimuli occurs, followed by specific physiological reactions which could be adrenaline release and flight reaction. The brain will then interpret specific physiological changes as the emotion, “I’m scared because my heart is racing and I am running away.”
James-Lange Theory of Emotion


A study done by Maranon, in 1924, found that physiological arousal is not enough to cause emotion. Only around two thirds of participants who were injected with adrenaline reported physical symptoms. In addition, there are studies that say that not all emotions, save for the strongest and most basic ones, have been found to occur with specific physiological changes.

Walter Cannon, one of the most important critics of James-Lange theory, believed that for this theory to adequately describe emotion, different physiological responses for every emotion must be defined. He added that since emotion is the physiological response in this theory, one way to differentiate the emotions from each other is to determine the different reactions for each emotion.

The following are the three reasons highlighted by Cannon as to why he rejects this theory:

  • Physiological experience of emotion does not appear to differ from each other to the extent that would be essential to discriminate one emotion from another based only on our bodily reaction.
  • Physiological aspect of emotion shadows our subjective experience of the emotion, at times.
  • Physiological responses that are made artificially do not result in emotions.
  • Support

In 1953, Ax found that different physiological changes related to particular emotions. Fear seemed to be associated with physiological effects of adrenaline while anger appeared to be associated with the effects of noradrenaline. Another study done by Schwatz et al, in 1981, also found distinct physiological reactions for anger, fear, happiness, and sadness.

In the 1990s, advances in technology allowed psychologists to study bodily reactions, shedding more light on the James-Lange theory of emotion and addressing the first among the compelling criticisms presented by Cannon. Using modern tools, researchers were able to demonstrate that some emotions involve differing patterns of autonomic nervous system arousal and other bodily reactions. In a study done by Levenson et al, in 1990, participants were asked to make facial expressions for the emotions of fear, anger, happiness, disgust, sadness, and surprise and to hold these expressions for 10 seconds. Researchers then measured the participants’ physiological reactions and found that there were slight but noticeable differences in heart rate, skin temperature, and other physiological reactions for the different emotions. All emotions caused changes in heart rate and skin temperature, but they were able to find that the degree of the change is actually the measure that distinguished emotions from each other. Although this finding does not support the whole theory, this did give some merit to the James-Lange approach.

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