What Is the James-Lange Theory of Emotion?

A woman experiencing a fearful emotion
PeopleImages.com / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Definition: Proposed independently 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.

How Does the James-Lange Theory Work?

According to this theory, witnessing an external stimulus leads to a physiological response. Your emotional reaction depends on 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.")

William James explained, "My thesis, on the contrary, is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion."

For another example, imagine that you are walking through a dark parking garage toward your car. 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 fear. Therefore, you feel frightened and rush to your car as quickly as you can.

Criticisms of the James-Lange Theory

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, proposed in the 1920s by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, directly challenges the James-Lange theory.

Cannon and Bard's theory instead suggests that our physiological reactions, such as crying and trembling, are caused by our emotions.

While modern researchers largely discount the James-Lange theory, there are some instances where physiological responses do lead to experiencing emotions. Developing a panic disorder and specific phobias are two examples.

For example, a person may experience a physiological reaction such as becoming ill in public, which then leads to an emotional response such as feeling anxious. If an association is formed between the situation and the emotional state, the individual might begin avoiding anything that might then trigger that particular emotion.

Learn more about the various theories of emotion.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary


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

Continue Reading