- The James Lange Theory of Emotion
- What is the James Lange Theory of Emotion?
- Criticism of the James Lange Theory of Emotion
- Support for the James Lange Theory of Emotion
- James Lange Theory of Emotion — Decoding the Counter-Intuitive Theory of Emotion
- History of the James-Lange Theory
- What Exactly is James-Lange Theory of Emotion?
- A Deeper Look into the James-Lange Theory
- James-Lange Theory Examples
- Why Women Are More Emotional? James-Lange Have an Answer!
- When Machine-induced Smile Made a Person Happy!
- Criticism of James-Lange Theory
The James Lange Theory of Emotion
American psychologist William James (1884) and Danish physiologist Carl Lange (1887) independently proposed their theories of emotion at approximately the same time. Their two theories were later combined into what is presently known as the James Lange Theory of Emotion.
Both James and Lange proposed that emotions are results of physiological reactions to external events. James’ research gave more attention to emotion as a consequence of a physiological change, while Lange emphasized emotion as the demonstration of a physiological change.
What is the James Lange Theory of Emotion?
The James Lange theory of emotion states that emotion is equivalent to the range of physiological arousal caused by external events.
The two scientists suggested that for someone to feel emotion, he/she must first experience bodily responses such as increased respiration, increased heart rate, or sweaty hands.
Once this physiological response is recognized, then the person feels the emotion.
Here’s a James Lange Theory example:
You’re walking in a dark alley in the middle of the night. Suddenly you hear some strange noises and your heart rate increases. According to the James Lange Theory of Emotion, you will conclude that you’re scared because your heart is beating really fast.
This is not the typical common sense way of thinking about the cause and effect relation between the experience of emotion and its manifestation. James and Lange emphasized that the autonomic activity and actions that are induced by emotional stimuli generate the feeling of emotion, not the other way around.
According to the James Lange Theory of Emotion, when the cortex of our brain receives stimuli that can induce emotions, our autonomic nervous system and somatic nervous system trigger our visceral organs and skeletal muscles respectively. These systems will then stimulate our brain, which will interpret the response as an experience of emotion.
Here’s another James Lange Theory example:
When you see an angry bull:
Perception of the angry bull → Feeling of fear → Physiological reactions
James-Lange ViewPerception of the angry bull → Physiological reactions → Feeling of fear
The perception of emotion-arousing stimuli is followed by specific physiological reactions such as release of adrenaline and flight reaction. The brain interprets the specific physiological changes as the emotion, “I’m scared because my heart is racing and I am running away.”
Criticism of the James Lange Theory of Emotion
A study done by Marañón in 1924 found that physiological arousal is not enough to cause emotion. Only around two thirds of participants who were injected with adrenaline reported physical symptoms.
In addition, there were studies that indicate that not all emotions, save for the strongest and most basic ones, have been found to occur with specific physiological changes.
Walter Cannon, one of the most important critics of the James Lange Theory of Emotion, believed that for this theory to adequately describe emotion, different physiological responses for every emotion must be defined.
Cannon added that since emotion is the physiological response in the James Lange theory, one way to differentiate the emotions from each other is to determine the different reactions for each emotion.
Some of the reasons highlighted by Cannon as to why he rejects the James Lange theory of emotion:
- Physiological experience of emotion does not appear to differ from each other to the extent that would be essential to discriminate one emotion from another ly on our bodily reaction.
- Physiological aspect of emotion shadows our subjective experience of the emotion, at times.
- Physiological responses that are made artificially do not result in emotions.
Support for the James Lange Theory of Emotion
In 1953, Ax noticed that different physiological changes are related to different emotions. For example, fear seems to be associated with the physiological effects of adrenaline, while anger appears to be associated with the effects of noradrenaline.
Another study done by Schwatz et al in 1981 also found distinct physiological reactions for anger, fear, happiness, and sadness.
In the 1990s, advances in technology allowed psychologists to study bodily reactions, shedding more light on the James Lange Theory of Emotion and addressing some of the compelling criticisms presented by Cannon.
Using modern tools, researchers were able to demonstrate that some emotions involve differing patterns of autonomic nervous system arousal and other bodily reactions.
In a study done by Levenson et al in 1990, participants were asked to make facial expressions for the emotions of fear, anger, happiness, disgust, sadness, and surprise and to hold these expressions for 10 seconds.
Researchers then measured the participants’ physiological reactions and found that there were slight but noticeable differences in heart rate, skin temperature, and other physiological reactions for the different emotions.
All emotions caused changes in heart rate and skin temperature, but they were able to find that the degree of change is actually the measure that distinguished emotions from each other. Although this finding did not support the whole theory, it did give some merit to the James Lange Theory of Emotion.
James Lange Theory of Emotion — Decoding the Counter-Intuitive Theory of Emotion
Questions concerning what emotions are and what purpose they serve have fascinated behavioral scientists and psychologists for centuries. Many theories have been proposed by researchers on the how and why of emotions, as well as what the implications are of these feelings.
The James-Lange theory is one of the early counter-intuitive theories that attempts to answer the most pertinent questions revolving around human emotions. But over time with the new discoveries and revelations in psychological and physiological research, this theory has been criticized and amended.
Theories Cannon-Bard and Schacter-Singer are more relevant according to the experts.
But it is still worth knowing what’s the James-Lange version of emotion. The James-Lange theory of emotion states that emotion is due to physiological arousal, and these physiological arousals are caused of external stimuli. Simply put, emotions are a by-product of the physiological changes in our body, not the instigator of physiological changes.
History of the James-Lange Theory
Renowned American psychologist William James (1884) and diligent Danish physiologist Carl Lange (1887) independently proposed this idea, one of oldest theories concerning emotions.
Interestingly enough, they were proposed almost at the same time! With the efforts of other researchers and followers of this theory, their work was later combined into what is currently known as the James-Lange Theory of Emotion.
William James, Father of American Psychology who first proposed the James-Lange theory. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
James and Lange both believed that emotions are the results of physiological reactions to external stimuli.
Now, James’ work in this area revolved more around emotions as consequences of a physiological change, while Lange’s theory argued for emotion as the manifestation of a physiological change.
Nevertheless, both researchers presented the basic idea that emotion does not start with the conscious experience of a causative factor.
Carl Georg Lange, renowned Danish physiologist. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
What Exactly is James-Lange Theory of Emotion?
James and Lange profess that your brain does not simply decide that it is feeling an emotion sensory information coming into your memory (brain) through our sensory systems (vision, touch, taste, smell etc) and then tell the body ( the type of emotion) to speed up the heart rate, breathe faster or sweat more. That’s not how emotions work, if James and Lange are to be believed.
An intuitive view of emotions and bodily reactions upon the sight of an angry, charging bull
According to the James-Lange theory, external stimuli in the environment is received and decoded by the brain, but even before you consciously process it, your body is already responding with physiological changes, such as a rise in heart rate, alteration in blood pressure or even pupillary contractions/expansions. Thus, the emotions you develop are actually these physiological changes.
In other words, you might ask something “Why am I feeling excited?” The James-Lange explanation would be that because you are breathing fast and your heart is pumping rapidly, your brain concludes that you are excited!
A James-Lange view of begetting an emotion upon the sight of an angry, charging bull
A Deeper Look into the James-Lange Theory
So, James and Lange suggested that for someone to feel an emotion, he or she must first experience bodily responses (physiological), such as increased heart rate, increased respiration, or even a sweating forehead. Once this bodily reaction is perceived, then the person can say that he or she feels an emotion.
We experience various situations and events that can result in physiological changes, such as a heart rate increase, muscular tension, dryness of the mouth, perspiration and many others. These changes are controlled by our autonomic nervous system. The James-Lange theory suggests that emotions are a byproduct of these physiological changes, not their cause.
When external stimuli from the environment occurs, their signals are received and comprehended by the cortex of the brain. The visceral organs and the skeletal muscles are then triggered by the autonomic nervous system and somatic nervous system. The somatic and autonomic systems will then stimulate the brain, which will be decoded as an experience of emotion.
The James-Lange theory is a counter-intuitive approach, contrasting with conventional wisdom related to the cause and effect of emotions and their manifestation. Both scientists emphasized that the autonomic activity and the actions that are induced by an external stimulus generate the feeling of an emotion, not the other way around.
James-Lange Theory Examples
By now, you probably got the implications of James-Lange theory, and if not, consider a few real-life examples that corroborate this theory. Let’s begin with this example: You and your partner are sitting together on a comfortable sofa having a good discussion. You suddenly say or do something outrageous, which provokes your better half.
He/she gets furious and makes you realize that it’s your fault for behaving/saying such bizarre stuff. He/she keeps fuming about what your did until you finally give in and apologize. You try to console him/her by saying you didn’t really mean it or intend to offend. He/she budges and accepts your apology, but warns you not to repeat it again.
You agree and the heat of the conversation starts to diminish.
Just when you feel that things are normalizing, suddenly, he/she recollects some other miserable thing you did a decade ago! Astonishingly, he/she recollects all the details of that mishap and starts the argument all over again! Now, what’s going on there is actually a James-Lange moment!
An altercation between couples
Your partner was in an aroused or angry state, but then it faded once you apologized and convinced them you wouldn’t do it again. Cognitively, your partner has adjusted things and said to himself/herself—yes, he/she has recognized his/her mistake and I’m vindicated—it’s all settled now.
However, the trouble is that it takes a long time (a few minutes) for the sympathetic nervous system to return to its baseline (normal levels) from an aroused state of agitation.
Although cognitively he/she may feel that the problem is solved after an apology, his/her heart is still racing; what he/she is experiencing is the James-Lange phenomenon.
Why Women Are More Emotional? James-Lange Have an Answer!
Another thing about the physiological responses of the body in a James-Lang moment is that they are notably different in terms of the time required for settling down from an aroused state between genders.
In other words, physiological responses continue in an aroused state and take a longer time to settle back to normal levels in women as compared to men.
That’s why we generally state (and widely believe) that women are more emotional than men.
When Machine-induced Smile Made a Person Happy!
Another clinical experiment further validated the James-Lange theory. In the experiment, a man suffering from clinical depression was forced mechanically—using sophisticated biomedical equipment—to achieve a somatic state that mediates different emotions.
To put this into perspective, the experiment took a person with depression and told him that a mechanical process would stimulate his facial muscles to make it appear that he is smiling.
This mechanical process of making the muscles mimic a smile repeatedly for nearly 30 minutes made the person feel better! Upon interviewing the depressed person after the experiment, the subject revealed that while the world continued to be just as depressing as it was before, the forceful attempt to make him smile (using technology and machines), made him feel better. This repetitive process of muscles (despite being artificially induced) moving into a smiling state made him feel that things weren’t as bad as he had previously thought!
Criticism of James-Lange Theory
Walter Cannon, a physiologist and professor from Harvard Medical School was one of the early critics of the James-Lange theory.
Cannon opined that for this theory to properly describe and define emotion, different physiological responses for every emotion must be identified.
He adduced that since emotion is the physiological response according to the theory, one way to differentiate the emotions from each other is to have a definite set of physiological responses for each emotion.
Cannon supported his thesis that individuals are able to feel emotions even before the body responds to the emotion-instigating stimulus by surgically removing the sympathetic nervous system of a cat. Upon this experiment, it was observed that even though the somatic signals of stimulation were removed, the cat still manifested the emotions of anger, fear and pleasure.