The James Lange Theory

In psychology research, there has been disagreement about what comes first, the emotional response or the physiological response. 

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The James Lange Theory The James Lange Theory

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    The traditional theories of emotion propose that people see a stimulus, such as a snake, which causes them to feel scared and leads to physiological responses (e.g., shaking and breathing faster). The James-Lange theory disagrees with this and instead proposes that the sequence of response to stimuli differs from traditional perspectives. Instead, physiological responses elicit emotions. Trembling will result in us feeling scared.

    William James and Carl Lange proposed this theory in the late 1800s.

    The James-Lange Theory of emotion, a happy woman smiling contrasting a sad woman with storm clouds, StudySmarter

    According to James-Lange, emotion is dependent on the interpretation of bodily responses, freepik.com/pch.vector

    James-Lange Theory Definition of Emotion

    According to the James-Lange theory, the definition of emotion is the interpretation of physiological responses to changes in bodily sensation.

    The physiological response is the body's automatic, unconscious response to a stimulus or an event.

    According to the James-Lange theory of emotion, people become sadder when they cry, happier when they laugh, angrier when they strike out, and afraid because of trembling.

    The theory insisted that the bodily state is essential for emotion to have depth. Without it, logical conclusions on how to react can be made, but the emotion would not truly be there.

    For example, an old friend greets us with a smile. We smile back based on this perception and judge this is the best response, but this is a purely logical response that does not include the body as a precursor determining the smile, and so it lacks emotion (no happiness, just a smile).

    What is the James-Lange Theory of Emotion?

    The common theory of how emotions occur is that we smile because we are happy. However, according to James-Lange, humans become happy when they smile.

    The theory states that when encountering an external stimulus/event, the body has a physiological response. The emotion felt depends on how the individual interprets the physiological reaction to the stimuli.

    • Certain activity in the autonomic nervous system is associated with specific emotions. The autonomic nervous system is a part of the central nervous system. There are two components of it:
      1. The sympathetic system - increased activity in this is associated with negative emotions. The fight-or-flight response happens when there is increased activity in the sympathetic system, and the sympathetic system is more involved in stressful situations.
      2. The parasympathetic system - increased activity in this is associated with 'rest and digest', and more positive emotions. Energy is conserved for future use, and aids current ongoing systems such as digestion.

    This means that to process emotions people need to recognise and understand that they are feeling specific physiological changes due to the stimuli. After this is when the person realises the emotion that they are feeling.

    Certain physiological responses/changes are related to emotions:

    • Anger is associated with increases in body temperature and blood pressure, sweating, and increased release of stress hormones called cortisol.
    • Fear is associated with sweating, heightened focus, increased breathing and heart rate and affects cortisol.

    James-Lange Theory Example

    An example scenario of how fearful emotions may be processed according to the James-Lange theory is...

    An individual sees a spider.

    The individual begins to feel scared after realising that their hand is trembling, they are breathing faster and their heart is racing. These changes occur as a result of activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This is a division of the central nervous system that triggers the fight-or-flight response, i.e. hands trembling and breathing faster.

    Evaluation of the James-Lange Theory of Emotion

    Let's discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the James-Lange theory of emotion! Whilst also discussing the critiques and opposing theories raised by other researchers such as Cannon-Bard.

    Strengths of the James-Lange theory of emotion

    Strengths of the James-Lange theory of emotion are:

    • James and Lange supported their theory with research evidence. Lange was a physician who noticed an increase in blood flow when a patient got angry, which he concluded as supporting evidence
    • The theory recognises many important components of processing emotions, such as emotional arousal, changes in the physiology of the body and interpretation of events. This was a good starting point for research trying to understand emotional processing.

    The James-Lange theory of emotion originated from the beginning of research on emotional processing. This theory is widely criticised, and it is not an accepted, empirical theory of emotional processing in the current psychology research.

    Critiques of the James-Lange theory of emotion

    Weaknesses of the James-Lange theory of emotion are:

    • It does not take into account individual differences; not everyone will respond in the same way when encountering stimuli

    Some may feel better after crying when experiencing something sad, whereas this may make someone else feel worse. Some people also cry when they're happy.

    • Alexithymia is a disability that leads to people not being able to identify emotions. People with Alexithymia still have the symptoms James-Lange proposed as associated with specific emotions. Yet, they are still unable to identify and describe others' emotions. The theory can be considered reductionistic as it over-simplifies complex behaviour by ignoring important factors that may contribute to processing emotions.

    Cannon's critique of the James-Lange theory

    The researchers Cannon and Bard composed their theory of emotion. They widely disagreed with the theory proposed by James-Lange. Some of Cannon's critiques of the James-Lange theory were:

    • Some of the symptoms that are felt when angry such as increased blood pressure, also happen when someone is scared or anxious; how can an individual identify which emotion is being felt when there are multiple possibilities
    • Experiments that manipulated the body's physiology do not support James-Lange's theory. Students were injected with adrenaline which can increase heart rate and other symptoms that James-Lange proposed would cause strong emotions. However, this was not the case.

    Difference Between James-Lange and Cannon-Bard's Theory

    The difference between James-Lange and Cannon-Bard's theory of emotion process is the order of events that happen when people encounter a stimulus/event that causes an emotional process.

    According to the James-Lange theory, the order is:

    • Stimulus › physiological response › interpretation of physiological response › finally, emotion recognised/felt

    According to this theory, emotions are a result of these physiological changes

    Whereas the Cannon-Bard theory suggests that emotion is:

    • When humans experience an emotion-evoking stimulus, the individual experiences the emotion and physiological reaction simultaneously, a centralist approach.

    If a person who is scared of spiders sees one, according to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, individuals will feel scared and their hands will shake simultaneously.

    Therefore, Cannon's critique of the James-Lange theory is that experiencing emotions does not rely on physiological reactions.

    • Similar to the James-Lange theory, the theory proposes that physiology plays an important part in emotions.

    The James-Lange Theory of emotion - Key Takeaways

    • According to the James-Lange theory, the definition of emotion is the interpretation of physiological responses that happen as a result of various stimuli. The bodily state is essential for emotion to have depth. Without it, logical conclusions on how to react can be made, but the emotion would not truly be there.
    • The James-Lange theory states that
      • when encountering an external stimulus/event, the body has a physiological response
      • the emotion felt depends on how the individual interprets the physiological reaction to the stimuli
    • A James-Lange theory example is:
      • an individual sees a spider and begins to feel scared after realising that their hand is trembling, breathing faster, and their heart is racing.

    • A strength of the James-Lange theory is that the theory recognised many important components of processing emotions, such as emotional arousal, changes in the physiology of the body, and interpretation of events.

    • Other researchers have criticised the James-Lange theory of emotion. For example, Cannon and Bard argued that some of the symptoms that are felt when angry, such as increased blood pressure, also happen when someone is scared or anxious. So how can the same symptoms lead to different emotions?

    Frequently Asked Questions about The James Lange Theory

    What is the James Lange theory?

    The James Lange theory proposed the theory of emotion that describes how we experience emotions. The theory states that the body has a physiological response when encountering an external stimulus/event. The emotion felt depends on how the individual interprets the physiological reaction to the stimuli.


    Can interoception prove James-Lange's theory?  

    Research has identified that we have a sense called interoception. Interoception sense is responsible for helping us make sense of how we feel. We understand this by receiving feedback from our bodies. For example, when we find it difficult to keep our eyes open, we understand that we are tired. This is, in essence, the same thing that the James-Lange theory proposes. Therefore, interoception provides supportive evidence for James-Lange's theory of emotion.  

    How do the James-Lange and cannon-bard theories differ?

    The difference between James-Lange and Cannon-Bard's theory of emotion process is the order of events that happen when people encounter a stimulus/event that causes an emotional process. The James-Lange theory suggests the order as the stimulus, physiological response, and then interpreting these physiological responses, which leads to emotion. Whereas Cannon-Bard suggested that emotions are felt when humans experience an emotion-evoking stimulus, the individual simultaneously experiences the emotion and physiological reaction.


    When was the James Lange theory created?

    The James Lange theory was created in the late 1800s. 

    Why has the James Lange theory been criticized?

    Multiple issues lie within James-Lange Theory of Emotion, including issues with reductionism. Cannon criticised the James-Lange theory because it argues that some of the symptoms felt when angry, such as increased blood pressure, also happen when someone is scared or anxious. So how can the same symptoms lead to different emotions? 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    James-Lange Theory of Emotion has issues with being ______.

    Does the James-Lange theory take into account individual differences? 

    Activity within the autonomic _____ system is associated with emotional responses, according to James-Lange Theory of Emotion 

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