Theories of Emotion

Some of the Major Theories to Expain Human Emotions

Theories of emotion
Psychologists have proposed a number of theories to explain human emotion. Brand New Images/Stone/Getty Images

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

What Is Emotion?

In psychology, emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behavior.

Emotionality is associated with a range of psychological phenomena including temperament, personality, mood, and motivation. According to author David G. Meyers, human emotion involves "...physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience."

Theories of Emotion

The major theories of motivation can be grouped into three main categories: physiological, neurological, and cognitive. Physiological theories suggest that responses within the body are responsible for emotions. Neurological theories propose that activity within the brain leads to emotional responses. Finally, cognitive theories argue that thoughts and other mental activity play an essential role in forming emotions.

Evolutionary Theory of Emotion

It was naturalist Charles Darwin who proposed that emotions evolved because they were adaptive and allowed humans and animals to survive and reproduce. Feelings of love and affection lead people to seek mates and reproduce.

Feelings of fear compel people to either fight or flee the source of danger.

According to the evolutionary theory of emotion, our emotions exist because they serve an adaptive role. Emotions motivate people to respond quickly to stimuli in the environment, which helps improve the chances of success and survival.

Understanding the emotions of other people and animals also plays a crucial role in safety and survival. If you encounter hissing, spitting, and clawing animal, chances are you will quickly realize that the animal is frightened or defensive and leave it alone. By being able to interpret correctly the emotional displays of other people and animals, you can respond correctly and avoid danger.

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion

The James-Lange theory is one of the best-known examples of a physiological theory of emotion. Independently proposed by psychologist William James and physiologist Carl Lange, the James-Lange theory of emotion suggests that emotions occur as a result of physiological reactions to events.

This theory suggests that when you see an external stimulus that leads to a physiological reaction. Your emotional reaction is dependent upon how you interpret those physical reactions. For example, suppose you are walking in the woods and you see a grizzly bear. You begin to tremble, and your heart begins to race.

The James-Lange theory proposes that you will interpret your physical reactions and conclude that you are frightened ("I am trembling. Therefore I am afraid"). According to this theory of emotion, you are not trembling because you are frightened. Instead, you feel frightened because you are trembling.

The Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

Another well-known physiological theory is the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion. Walter Cannon disagreed with the James-Lange theory of emotion on several different grounds. First, he suggested, people can experience physiological reactions linked to emotions without actually feeling those emotions. For example, your heart might race because you have been exercising and not because you are afraid.

Cannon also suggested that emotional responses occur much too quickly for them to be simply products of physical states. When you encounter a danger in the environment, you will often feel afraid before you start to experience the physical symptoms associated with fear such as shaking hands, rapid breathing, and a racing heart.

Cannon first proposed his theory in the 1920s and his work was later expanded on by physiologist Philip Bard during the 1930s. According to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, we feel emotions and experience physiological reactions such as sweating, trembling, and muscle tension simultaneously.

More specifically, it is suggested that emotions result when the thalamus sends a message to the brain in response to a stimulus, resulting in a physiological reaction. At the same time, the brain also receives signals triggering the emotional experience. Cannon and Bard’s theory suggests that the physical and psychological experience of emotion happen at the same time and that one does not cause the other.

Schachter-Singer Theory

Also known as the two-factor theory of emotion, the Schachter-Singer Theory is an example of a cognitive theory of emotion. This theory suggests that the physiological arousal occurs first, and then the individual must identify the reason for this arousal to experience and label it as an emotion. A stimulus leads to a physiological response that is then cognitively interpreted and labeled which results in an emotion.

Schachter and Singer’s theory draws on both the James-Lange theory and the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion. Like the James-Lange theory, the Schachter-Singer theory proposes that people do infer emotions based on physiological responses. The critical factor is the situation and the cognitive interpretation that people use to label that emotion.

Like the Cannon-Bard theory, the Schachter-Singer theory also suggests that similar physiological responses can produce varying emotions. For example, if you experience a 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 with your significant other, you might interpret those responses as love, affection, or arousal.

Cognitive Appraisal Theory

According to appraisal theories of emotion, thinking must occur first before experiencing emotion. Richard Lazarus was a pioneer in this area of emotion, and this theory is often referred to as the Lazarus theory of emotion.

According to this theory, the sequence of events first involves a stimulus, followed by thought which then leads to the simultaneous experience of a physiological response and the emotion. For example, if you encounter a bear in the woods, you might immediately begin to think that you are in great danger. This then leads to the emotional experience of fear and the physical reactions associated with the fight-or-flight response.

Facial-Feedback Theory of Emotion

The facial-feedback theory of emotions suggests that facial expressions are connected to experiencing emotions. Charles Darwin and William James both noted early on that sometimes physiological responses often had a direct impact on emotion, rather than simply being a consequence of the emotion. Supporters of this theory suggest that emotions are directly tied to changes in facial muscles. For example, people who are forced to smile pleasantly at a social function will have a better time at the event than they would if they had frowned or carried a more neutral facial expression.


Cannon, W. B. (1927) The James-Lange theory of emotion: A critical examination and an alternative theory. American Journal of Psychology, 39, 10-124.

Myers, D. G. (2004). Theories of Emotion. Psychology: Seventh Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

James, W. (1884). What is an Emotion? Mind, 9, 188-205.

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