The 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 the James-Lange Theory of Emotion.

Both 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 a consequence of a physiological change, while Lange’s theory emphasized 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 James-Lange theory of emotion states that emotion is equivalent to the range of physiological arousal caused by external events. The two scientists suggested that for someone to feel emotion, he/she must first experience bodily responses such as increased respiration, increased heart rate, or sweaty hands. Once this physiological response is recognized, then the person can say that he/she feels the emotion.

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. The James Lange theory of emotion 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 James-Lange 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.

Here’s a James Lange theory example: when someone sees an angry bull:

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

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

The perception of emotion-arousing stimuli is followed by specific physiological reactions such as release of adrenaline and flight reaction. The brain interprets the specific physiological changes as the emotion, “I’m scared because my heart is racing and I am running away.”
James-Lange Theory of Emotion

Criticism of the 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 indicate 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 the 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.

Some of the reasons highlighted by Cannon as to why he rejects the James-Lange theory of emotion:

  • 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 of the James-Lange Theory of Emotion

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 change is actually the measure that distinguished emotions from each other. Although this finding did not support the whole theory, it did give some merit to the James-Lange theory of emotion.

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