The James-Lange Theory of Emotion

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One of the oldest theories of emotion was proposed almost simultaneously by William James and by a Danish psychologist, Carl Lange.  The James/Lange theory is quite counterintuitive.  It states that when a person perceives an emotion producing stimulus, the body reacts with characteristic skeletal and visceral responses.  It is these responses that are labeled emotion.  For example, if you turned and saw a snarling dog you wouldn’t be afraid immediately first you would begin pumping adrenaline into your bloodstream.  You would inhale very sharply and move quickly.

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion These responses would in turn produce fear, according to the James/Lange theory.  Labeling as fear the group of bodily responses we make to certain stimuli.  If these responses did not occur, there would be no fear.  The common sense view of emotion would be expressed this way: I see dog, I am afraid, so I run.  The James/Lange theory would be I see a dog, I run, so I am afraid.  Emotion is the consequence of responses, according to the James/Lange theory (Lange & James, 1922).

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Schachter (1964) has proposed an interesting theory of emotion whose implications contradict the James/Lange theory.  Schachter suggests that emotion is caused by physiological arousal plus a cognition that labels or steers the arousal.  The cognition the person uses to label his arousal will determine which emotion he believes he has.  Emotion requires both arousal and the appropriate cognition.  Schachter and his colleagues tested this two factor theory of emotion using an experimental design that administered epinephrine to several groups of subjects.  This drug causes physiological arousal.  Some subjects were informed that arousal would occur, some were not informed of the effects of the drug and some were misinformed about the effects.  Then each subject spent time in a waiting room either in the presence of an angry fellow subject or with a euphoric, fun loving subject.  The experiment showed that the informed subjects were least affected by the behavior of the confederate.  The uninformed and misinformed subjects acted either angry or euphoric, mimicking the subjects in the waiting room.  Therefore, the emotions cannot be distinguished on the basis of differences in arousal.   They can be distinguished by the different cognitions the two groups of subjects have (Schachter, 1971).

One type of research methods used fore uncovering basic emotions would be the use of a polygraph or lie detector.  This is based on the fact that changes in body functions accompany many emotions.  Lie detectors might more accurately be called emotion detectors.  They do not actually detect lies, but rather measure arousal.  A lie detector measures a few specific indicators of physiological arousal, usually changes in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and skin response.  A lie detector is based on the idea that people will react emotionally and with increased arousal, when lying in response to incriminating questions.  Lie detectors are far from foolproof though and because of the high error rate many states do not allow polygraph results to be used as evidence in court (Bashore & Rapp, 1993).

Several studies have found that there are distinct differences in the patterns of physiological responses for different emotions.  In one group of studies, participants were asked to simulate the distinctive facial expression for six emotions; surprise, disgust, sadness, anger, fear and happiness.  While they held the expression for 10 seconds, their heart rate, skin temperature and other measures of autonomic arousal were measured.  Different physiological patterns were found for different emotions.  Anger, fear and sadness all involved a significantly increased heart rate.  Anger produced a dramatic increase in skin temperature, while fear involved a marked decrease in skin temperature.  Broader surveys of many different cultures have also suggested that distinct patterns of physiological changes may well be universal, or at least for basic emotions like joy, fear, anger, sadness and disgust.

Using the EEG has measured brain activity while research participants are experiencing different emotions.  Richard Davidson (1993) found that activity increases in the left cerebral hemisphere when people experience joy, interest and anger, those emotions that represent the tendency to approach the emotion producing stimulus.  Activity increases in the right cerebral hemisphere when people experience distress, disgust and fear.  Negative emotions that reflect the tendency to withdraw from the stimulus, these findings have proposed that the left hemisphere is specialized for emotions that are related to the tendency to approach a pleasant stimulus.  The right hemisphere seems to be specialized for emotions that are related to the tendency to withdraw from an unpleasant stimulus (Levenson, 1992).

A second area of research supporting a modified James/Lange theory involves the effect of behaviorally expressing an emotion on subjective experience.  When people act happy, they feel happier.  And acting angry or fearful may lead you to feel angrier or more fearful.  According to the facial feedback hypothesis, expressing a specific emotion, especially facially, causes us to subjectively experience that emotion.  In testing this notion, researchers have asked people to manipulate their facial muscles to form a facial expression characteristic of a given emotion, such as a smile or a frown.

But the researcher does not tell the subject what emotional expression the facial manipulations are supposed to represent.  Feedback from the facial muscles is sent as signals to the brain, and this information affects our experience of the emotion.  Psychologists Paul Ekman and Richard Davidson (1993) have demonstrated that deliberately creating a happy smile tends to produce the same changes in some measures of brain activity as spontaneously producing a happy smile in response to a real event.  Collectively, such evidence lends limited support to one aspect of the James/Lange theory: our body responses, including feedback from our muscles, can affect our subjective experience.  The facial feedback hypothesis does not claim that facial expressions necessarily cause all emotional experiences.  Rather, expressive behavior helps to activate and regulate emotional experience, intensifying or lessening emotion (Lang, 1994).

Motivation and emotion are closely intertwined in every person’s life. Like emotions, motives reflect the complex interaction of a variety of factors, including cognitive, biological, behavioral and cultural factors.  There are continuous interactions between the physiological, emotional and cognitive aspects of human nature.  Emotions include physiological and cognitive components.   High levels of bodily arousal in response to stress heighten our emotional responses and influence our cognitions.  It appears that we are motivated to seek optimal levels of arousal at which we feel best and function most efficiently.


  • Bashore, T. R. & Rapp, P. E. (1993).  Are there alternatives to traditional polygraph       procedures?  Psychological Review of Psychology, 45, p. 3-22.
  • Lang, P.J. (1994).  The variety of emotional experience: A meditation on James-Lang     theory.  Psychological Review, 101, p. 211-221.
  • Lange, C.G. & James, W. (1922).  The emotions.  Translated by I.A. Haupt.  Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
  • Levenson, R. W. (1992). Autonomic nervous system differences among emotions.                                   Psychological Science, 3, p. 23-27.
  • Schachter, S. (1971).  Emotions, obesity and crime.  New York: Academic.

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