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.
According to this theory, witnessing an external stimulus leads to a physiological reaction. Your emotional reaction depends 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."
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 the James-Lange theory is largely discounted by modern researchers, there are some instances where physiological responses do lead to the experience of emotions. The development of 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 reaction 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.
Learn more about the various theories of emotion.
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James, William. (1884). What is an emotion? Mind, 9, 188-205.