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Schachter-Singer Theory

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Schachter-Singer Theory

How do you feel?

As you try to answer this question, you might pay attention to the thoughts going through your mind, things that you are feeling in your body, or things that you are doing right now. Why do we attach our emotions to our thoughts, bodily sensations, and actions?

  • What is the definition of Schachter-Singer’s theory in psychology?
  • What is the Schachter-Singer two-factor theory?
  • What was the first experiment testing the Schachter-Singer theory?
  • What is the difference between the Schachter-Singer theory and the Cannon-Bard theory?

Definition of the Schachter-Singer Theory in Psychology

Thoughts, bodily sensations, and actions: As you think about these, know that others have debated how these three factors play a role in our emotions. A lot of research has tried to figure out how we experience emotions. One theory that helps us better understand our emotions is Stanley Schachter's and Jerome Singer’s two-factor theory of emotion.

You’re driving home from your friend’s house when you see a car drive into a ditch. The people in the car are stuck and need help. Even though you are just a witness to the event, your body reacts to what you are seeing. There are two things that happen before your emotions come into play:

1) your body reacts to the event (increased heart rate, racing thoughts, blood pumping, etc.), and

2) you think about what you are feeling in a certain way ("Someone could be hurt! I am feeling like this because someone could be in danger.").

How you think about what you are experiencing in your body determines what emotions you feel. In this case, you feel fear, concern, a sense of urgency, and compassion.

Schachter-Singer Theory a car in the ditch off of a dirt road, with another car pulling it out with a rope attached to the cars StudySmarterCar in ditch, pixabay.com

The scenario above is an example of how the Schachter-Singer theory of emotion works. This theory explains how emotion is experienced after two factors: physiological responses and cognitive appraisals. According to Schachter and Singer, these two factors happen before we experience emotion.

Physiological responses are the body’s automatic reactions (e.g., goosebumps) to a person, place, object, or event.

Cognitive appraisals are what we think about the person, place, object, or event (e.g., is what happened good or bad?).

Schachter-Singer Theory goosebumps on a person's arm StudySmarter

Goosebumps, pixabay.com

The Schachter-Singer Two-Factor Theory

Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer came up with their theory of emotion in the early 1960s. The most important part of the Schachter-Singer theory is your cognitive appraisal of your bodily reaction. What you think about how your body is responding determines what emotion you feel. However, there is more to this theory than just these two factors. There are three primary ideas that are part of the Schachter and Singer theory.

Idea 1

When a person experiences a bodily response to something, but they have no idea why they are experiencing it, they must decide why their body is responding this way. The cognitive appraisal is usually immediate and based on the environment. The person has to decide what to think about what is happening, even if the appraisal turns out to be wrong.

Alice suddenly feels goosebumps on her arm, and she thinks it’s because the movie theater is cold. This cognitive appraisal could be correct, but it could also be wrong. Alice is watching a scary movie, and goosebumps can form either due to the cold, or because of the scenes in the movie.

Idea 2

When a person experiences a bodily response to something and they know why they are experiencing it, the cognitive appraisal has already happened. The bodily response and cognitive appraisal happen simultaneously.

JC is walking to school when he starts to shiver. He’s not wearing a jacket and it’s the middle of winter, so JC knows that he’s cold because of the weather.

Idea 3

When a person is faced with something they experienced in the past, their past experience will usually determine how their body responds, what they think about what is happening, and how they feel about it this time.

Eli is at the amusement park with his friends when someone says they should go on the rollercoaster next. Eli starts to sweat because rollercoasters have made him feel really nervous and scared in the past. His memory of the past informs his cognitive appraisal that the rollercoaster will be unpleasant and scary.

Schachter's and Singer's theory is all about the cause-and-effect relationship between physiological responses, cognitive appraisals, and emotion. Basically, our physiological responses happen automatically without our input. Based on what we are experiencing in our bodies, we mentally decide why our body is responding like that. Based on how we think about what is happening in our body, we experience emotions that go along with our cognitive appraisal.

The Schachter-Singer Theory Experiment

The very first experiment that Schacter and Singer conducted about their theory was a study using a hormone called epinephrine. Epinephrine is both a hormone and a type of medication. The medication version is often used to treat severe allergic reactions (i.e., Epi-Pens).

In this experiment, Schacter and Singer gathered a group of volunteers who were told they would be taking a medication that would help improve eyesight. The medication was epinephrine, and Schachter and Singer chose to use it because it naturally induces physiological responses like increased blood pressure, pulse, and sweating.

By inducing a physiological response, the researchers could monitor how a participant's cognitive appraisal of the bodily response determined what emotions they felt as a result. The researchers separated the participants into four separate groups: Epinephrine Informed, Epinephrine Misinformed, Epinephrine Ignorant, and a control group.

  • Volunteers in the Epinephrine Informed group were told the exact potential side effects of epinephrine. They were the most likely participants to know how to correctly determine why they experienced certain reactions. Volunteers in the Epinephrine Misinformed group were told the opposite of the side effects of epinephrine. These volunteers expected to experience the exact opposite of what they later experienced!
  • Volunteers in the Epinephrine Ignorant group were not told of any side effects, and volunteers in the control group took a placebo medication. These two groups had no idea what to expect as they participated in the study. The important thing to remember is that ALL of the volunteers (outside of the control group) experienced similar physiological responses to the epinephrine. What was different, however, was their cognitive appraisals.
  • The Epinephrine Informed group knew what kind of bodily responses to expect, and they appraised what was happening in a positive way. "This is what was supposed to happen. The medicine is working!" The Epinephrine Misinformed group expected the exact opposite bodily responses than what they experienced. Unsurprisingly, they appraised what was happening in a negative way. "Something is not right. I am not supposed to be feeling this way."
  • The Epinephrine Ignorant and control groups had no idea what to expect during the study, and they appraised what was happening in both positive and negative ways. This is interesting since the control group participants were taking a placebo and shouldn't have experienced anything! Positive appraisals in the first group led to feeling happy, and negative appraisals in the second group led to feeling disappointed. The groups felt differently about what they had experienced, even though they all (apart from the control group) experienced the same thing! What was different? Their cognitive appraisals were different.

Notice how the cognitive appraisals were an assumption in Schachter's and Singer's study. The participants didn't need to be told to form a cognitive appraisal; it happened automatically. Even the participants in the control group who just received a placebo still thought about what was happening in a certain way, which in turn influenced their emotions!

The Schachter-Singer and Cannon-Bard Theories

Another important theory of emotion is the Cannon-Bard theory. Walter Cannon and Phillip Bard's theory is all about how we experience both emotional and physiological responses at the same time. The two experiences are strongly connected to each other, even apart from our thoughts. In other words, our feelings and biological reactions occur at the same time, and we don't have to decide what to think about our bodily responses before knowing what to feel.

Nancy is walking to the bus stop when a gust of wind blows her dress up. She feels embarrassed and blushes simultaneously. Nancy's embarrassed response is instinctual and doesn't require a cognitive appraisal.

What if Nancy had experienced amusement and laughed rather than feeling embarrassed? What determines which emotion you feel in a given situation? Schachter and Singer held that it's how you think about the event that makes all the difference. This includes how you think about the event based on past experiences.

Maybe one of Nancy's friends told her to hang onto her dress today because it's windy. As soon as the wind rushes by her, Nancy remembers what her friend said and laughs. Her perspective changes her reaction to the event! How do you think about things that happen to you? If you changed your perspective, would your feelings change as well?

Hannah Grace is opening the door to her home when she notices that the lights she left on are now off. She becomes tense (physiological response) because things are not as she left them. She thinks to herself, "Maybe someone broke in." All of a sudden, the lights turn on and her friends yell “Surprise!” Hannah Grace's negative appraisal quickly changes to a positive one as her body relaxes. She recognizes that she is not in danger (cognitive appraisal). She feels happy and excited!

Schachter-Singer Theory - Key Takeaways

  • The Schachter-Singer Theory of emotion explains how emotion is experienced after two factors: physiological responses and cognitive appraisals.
  • The most important part of the Schachter-Singer theory is your cognitive appraisal of your bodily reaction. What you think about how your body is responding determines what emotion you feel.
  • The cognitive appraisal is usually immediate and based on the environment.
  • When a person is faced with something they experienced in the past, their past experience will usually determine how their body responds, what they think about what is happening, and how they feel about it this time.
  • In their study, the participants didn't need to be told to form a cognitive appraisal; it happened automatically, and informed how they felt.

Frequently Asked Questions about Schachter-Singer Theory

The Schachter-Singer Theory is a theory of emotion that says emotion follows physiological responses and cognitive appraisals.

Schachter and Singer tested their theory through a study using epinephrine to naturally increase physiological responses like blood pressure, pulse, and perspiration (i.e., sweating). 

Schachter and Singer's theory addresses the question of how humans experience emotion. 

Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer developed the Schachter-Singer Two Factor Theory. 

The James-Lange and Schachter-Singer theories have in common the order of physiological responses occurring before emotion. 

Final Schachter-Singer Theory Quiz

Question

What is the Schachter-Singer Theory?  

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Answer

The Schacter-Singer Theory, also known as the “Two-Factor Theory,” posits that to experience emotion, one must undergo a physiological response and create a cognitive appraisal for that response. These two factors can happen at the same time but are independent of one another.   

Show question

Question

How did Schachter and Singer test their theory? 


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Answer

The very first experiment that Schacter and Singer did was through the use of epinephrine; Epinephrine is a drug that is often used to treat severe allergic reactions (think Epi-Pen). In this experiment, Schacter and Singer gathered a group of volunteers who would be taking a “drug” that would help improve eyesight. This “drug” was epinephrine and it was being used because it naturally increases physiological responses like blood pressure, pulse, and perspiration (i.e., sweating). The point of doing this was to use four separate groups to see how cognitive appraisals can be affected to impact how one experiences emotion.   

Show question

Question

What is the question that Schachter and Singer's theory addresses?  


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Answer

In Schachter and Singer's theory, they address the question of how humans process/experience emotion.  

Show question

Question

Who developed the Schachter-Singer Two Factor Theory?  

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Answer

Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer developed the Two-Factor Theory.  

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Question

When did Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer develop the Two-Factor Theory? 

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Answer

In the 1960s!

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Question

What do the James-Lange and Schachter-Singer theories have in common?  


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Answer

Both theories try to answer the question of how humans experience emotion. 

Also, both theories agree that physiological responses occur before emotion. 

Show question

Question

What is the difference between the Schachter-Singer theory versus the Cannon-Bard theory? 


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Answer

The Cannon-Bard theory differs from the Schacter-Singer Theory because it only uses emotional and physiological responses; it does not include cognitive appraisals as part of the process of creating emotion. 

Also, Cannon and Bard theorized that emotional and physiological responses occur at the same time, while Schacter and Singer posited that emotions are a result of physiological responses and cognitive appraisals.  

Show question

Question

According to the Schachter-Singer theory, what are the two factors used to experience emotion? 

Show answer

Answer

Two factors for how we experience emotion: 

  • Physiological Response 
  • Cognitive Appraisals

Show question

Question

What is one primary idea from the Two-Factor Theory? 

Show answer

Answer

When a person encounters a physiological response, but they have no explanation for it, they must create a cognitive appraisal. This cognitive appraisal is usually immediate and concerning their environment, but it has to occur, even if the appraisal turns out to be wrong. 

Show question

Question

What is one primary idea from the Two-Factor Theory?  

Show answer

Answer

When a person encounters a physiological response and they know why they are experiencing it, they don’t desire to create a cognitive appraisal [there’s no need to!] 

Show question

Question

What is one primary idea from the Two-Factor Theory?   

Show answer

Answer

When a person is faced with a stimulus that they have experienced and created emotions for previously, they will typically have the same physiological responses. 

Show question

Question

What is the four-step process for how we experience emotion (Two-Factor Theory)? 

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Answer

  1. A stimulus is present 
  2. The person has a physiological response due to the stimulus
  3. The person creates a cognitive appraisal based on their physical response 
  4. The person experiences emotion that is established from their cognitive appraisal 

Show question

Question

Provide an example for the Two-Factor Theory. 

(Make your own or take one from the article.) 

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Answer

Hannah Grace is opening the door to her home when she notices that the lights she left on are now off. She starts to sweat (physiological response) when all of a sudden the lights turn on and her friends yell out “Surprise!” Hannah Grace recognizes that she is not in danger and understands that her friends are throwing her a surprise party (cognitive appraisal). Hannah Grace feels happy and excited!  

Show question

Question

What are physiological responses? 

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Answer

Physiological responses are the body’s automatic reactions (e.g., goosebumps) to a stimulus 

Show question

Question

What are cognitive appraisals? 

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Answer

Cognitive appraisals are mental labels that we create to identify or describe the stimuli.  

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