What Is the James-Lange Theory of Emotion?

How does the James-Lange theory account for emotions?

Woman experiencing angry emotions
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What causes emotions? What factors control how emotions are experienced? What purpose do emotions serve? Such questions have fascinated psychologists for hundreds of years and a number of different theories have emerged to explain how and why we have emotions. One of the early theories proposed by researchers was known as the James-Lange theory of emotion.

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.

In other words, this theory proposes that people have a physiological response to environmental stimuli and that their interpretation of that physical response then results in an emotional experience.

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.

Both James and Lange believed that while it was possible to imagine experiencing an emotion such as fear or anger, your imagined version of the emotion would be a flat facsimile of the real feeling. Why? Because they felt that without the actual physiological response that they believed precipitated the emotions, it would be impossible to experience these emotions "on demand." In other words, the physical reaction needs to be present in order to actually experience the real emotion.

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.

One major criticism of the theory was that neither James nor Lange based their ideas upon anything that remotely resembled controlled experiments. Instead, the theory was largely the result of introspection and correlational research. Both James and Lange did present some clinical findings to support their theory. For example, Lange cited one physician's observations that blood flow to the skull increased when a patient was angry, which he interpreted as supporting his idea that a physical response to a stimuli led to the experience of that emotion.

It was the later work of neuroscientists and experimental physiologists who demonstrated further flaws with the James-Lange theory of emotions.

For example, researchers found that both animals and humans who had experienced major sensory losses were still capable of experiencing emotions. According to both James and Lange, physiological responses should be necessary to truly experience emotion. However, researchers discovered that even those with muscle paralysis and lack of sensation were able to still feel emotions such as joy, fear, and anger.

Another issue with the theory is that when tested by applying electrical stimulation, applying stimulation to the same site does not lead to the same emotions every time. A person may have the exact same physiological response to a stimulus, yet experience an entirely different emotion. Factors such as the individual's existing mental state, cues in the environment, and the reactions of other people can all play a role in the resulting emotional response.

Support for the James-Lange Theory of Emotion

While it seems as if the James-Lange theory should be nothing more than something you might study for its historical significance, it maintains its relevance today because researchers continue to find evidence that supports at least some parts of James's and Lange's original ideas.

Some evidence in support of the theory:

  • PET scan studies have revealed that the basic emotions elicit distinct patterns of activity in the brain.
  • These same studies showed that the brain's somatosensory cortex, and area of the brain associated with processing sensory information from the muscles, skin, and organs, became active during emotional responses.
  • Studies also suggest that the perception of internal physical states plays a role in how people experience emotions. One study, for example, found that participants who were more sensitive to their body's physical signals also experienced more negative emotions such as anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

Emotions make up such a huge part of our lives so it is not surprising that researchers have devoted so much effort toward understand the how and why behind our emotional responses. The James-Lange theory of emotion represents just one of the earliest theories. While the theories has been criticized and altered considerably over the years, James's and Lange's ideas continue to exert and influence today.

The theory has been modified over time and competing theories of emotion such as the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion and Schacter's two-factor theory of emotion have also been introduced. Today, many researchers would instead suggest that rather than our emotions being the result of physical reactions as James and Lange suggested, our emotional experiences are instead modified by both physiological reactions along with other information.

Sources:

Feldman Barrett, L. Emotions are real. American Psychological Association. 2012; 12(3): 413–429.

Hockenbury, DH & Hockenbury, SE. Discovering Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers; 2011.

Pastorino, EE & Doyle-Portillo, SM. What Is Psychology? Essentials. Belmont, CA: Wadworth Cengage Learning; 2013.

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