theories of emotion

An Easy Guide To The “3 Major Theories of Emotion”

Theories of Emotion

Emotions exercise an extremely powerful force on human behavior. Strong emotion can cause you to take actions you might not normally perform or to avoid situations you enjoy. Why exactly we do have emotions? What causes us to have these feelings? Researchers, philosophers, and psychologists have proposed different theories of emotion to explain how and why behind human emotions.

Here we understand the three major theories of emotion, including James-Lange, Cannon-Bard, and Schachter-Singer.

James-Lange Theory of Emotion

One of the early theories of emotion proposed by researchers was known as the James-Lange theory of emotion. The name “James-Lange” had been proposed by the name of psychologists William James and Carl Lange.

The James-Lange theory of emotion suggests that emotions occur because of physiological reactions to events. In other words, this theory proposes that people have a physiological response to environmental stimuli and their interpretation of that physical response then results in an emotional experience. Your emotional reaction depends upon how you interpret those physical reactions. Hence, this theory argues that an event causes physiological arousal then we interpret or make meaning of this arousal. Only after interpretation of that arousal, we can experience emotion.

For example, imagine that you are walking through a dark parking garage toward your vehicle. You notice a dark figure trailing behind you and your heart begins to race. According to the James-Lange theory, you then interpret your physical reactions to the stimulus as a fear. Therefore, you feel frightened and rush to your vehicle as quickly as you can.

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 the result of these physiological responses and not their causes.

See, these two interpretations.

Common Sense: Perception of the angry dog – Feeling of Fear – Physiological reactions

James-Lange: Perception of the angry dog – Physiological reactions – Feeling of Fear

Thus, as per James-Lange Theory: Event – Arousal – Interpretation – Emotion

Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

The second of theories of emotion is the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion. Walter B. Cannon and his graduate student, Philip Bard, developed the theory in 1927. It was established as an alternative to the James-Lange theory of emotion. Cannon-Bard’s theory states that feelings are the result of physical reactions to the stimulating event. According to this theory, emotions and bodily changes do not share a cause-and-effect relationship. Rather, they occur simultaneously, following a stimulating event.

For example, when a person sees a poisonous snake, he/she feels afraid and his/her muscles are tensed at the same time, preparing to run away from a dangerous animal. One can observe the person’s emotion based on the physiological signal that his/her body displays.

Cannon-Bard proposes that both of these reactions originate simultaneously in the thalamus of the brain. This is a small brain structure responsible for receiving sensory information. It relays it to the appropriate area of the brain for processing. When a triggering event occurs, the thalamus might send signals to the amygdala.

The amygdala is responsible for processing strong emotions, such as fear, pleasure, and anger. It might also send signals to the cerebral cortex, which controls conscious thought. Signals sent from the thalamus to the autonomic nervous system and skeletal muscles control physical reactions. These include sweating, shaking, or tense muscles. Thus, sometimes Cannon-Bard theory is referred to as the “thalamic theory of emotion.”

Schachter-Singer Theory of Emotion

The third of the theories of emotion is Schachter-Singer’s theory of emotion, which is a cognitive approach to understanding how emotional states are determined by cognitive factors. From the late 1950s, the so-called cognitive revolution became so prominent among psychologists.

Following this trend, Stanely Schachter and Jerome Singer proposed that there are cognitive factors that influence the varied states of emotions, moods, and feelings. They took account of the physiologically based theories such as James-Lange theory and Cannon-Bard theory of emotion and came to a conclusion that the various instinctive or physiological patterns do not match the wide variety of emotional states of individuals. Schachter and Singer formally introduced the theory in 1962.

According to this theory, the element of reasoning plays an important role in how we experience emotions. The Schachter-SInger theory suggests that when an event causes physiological arousal, we try to find the reason for this arousal. Then we experience the label emotion.

For example, you are sitting in the darkroom all by yourself, and all of a sudden, you hear a breathing sound behind you. Your heart rate increases and you begin to shake. Upon noticing these physical reactions, you realize that they come from the fact that you are all alone in the darkroom. You think that you may be in danger, and you feel the emotion of fear.

The short cut of Schachter-Singer theory is that: Event – Arousal – Reasoning – Emotion

Schachter-Singer theory of emotion

The underlying principle of this theory is that we perceive the world through a lens of thoughts that are developed based on what we learn when growing up. If we learned that we are capable and competent as children, we will see ourselves as capable and competent adults. These thoughts trigger emotions and these emotions trigger certain behaviors. Because we are capable and competent adults, we will confidently take on our money matters.

Comparison of These Three Theories of Emotion

TheoryInitial ReactionSecondary Reaction
James-LangePhysical reaction.Emotional occurs.
Cannon-BardEmotions occur at the same time-as the physical response.
Schachter-SingerPhysical and emotional reactions
occurs at the same time.
Situation-search environment.

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