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. The James-Lange theory of emotion suggests that emotions occur as a result of physiological reactions to events.

This is one of the earliest formal theories of emotions, formed across 1884 and 1885 by William James and Carl Lange (and therefore sometimes known as the James-Lange theory). The theory states that emotions are separable from physiological reactions to events.

The sequence that they posit begins with a stimulus that triggers a bodily response, and as an individual experiences these physiological changes, this is also experienced as an emotion.

 james lange theory of emotion

Emotions were (and often still are) assumed to be the precursor to physiological reactions – this theory was pivotal in turning that on its head, and stating that physiological reactions could be the trigger of emotional reactions.

While the theory was the first step in understanding emotions beyond a surface level, there have been several challenges that the theory is unable to account for. Some of the strongest criticisms came from Walter Cannon, who pointed out that physiological reactions aren’t strictly specific to certain emotions (e.g. anger and fear can both increase heart rates, but are very different as emotions).

Further to this, injection of adrenaline that increases heart rate has only been found to lead to specific emotions when cognitive prompts are made [4], which the James-Lange theory does not account for.

This theory suggests that seeing an external stimulus leads to a physiological reaction. Your emotional reaction is dependent upon how you interpret those physical reactions.

For example, suppose you are walking in the woods and see a grizzly bear. You begin to tremble, and your heart begins to race. The James-Lange theory proposes that you will conclude that you are frightened ("I am trembling. Therefore, I am afraid"). According to this theory of emotion, you are not trembling because you are frightened. Instead, you feel frightened because you are trembling.

Here’s another James Lange Theory example:

When you see an angry bull:

Common-Sense View
Perception of the angry bull → Feeling of fear → Physiological reactions

James-Lange View
Perception 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.”

Impact of the James-Lange Theory

Prior to the James-Lange theory, the standard line of thought was that people the first reaction to perception was cognitive. Physical responses then occurred as a reaction to that thought. The James-Lange approach instead suggested that these physiological responses occur first and that they play a major role in the experience of emotion.

While it might seem like a small distinction in the sequence of events, the theory had an important impact on psychology and the understanding of emotions.  While influential, however, not everyone agreed that physical responses were what led to emotions.

The German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt was one of the first to critique the theory. He instead suggested that emotions were a primal, hard-wired sensory response. It was not long before other researchers challenged this viewpoint and proposed their own theories to explain the emotional experience.

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, proposed in the 1920s by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, directly challenged 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 modern researchers largely discount the James-Lange theory, there are some instances where physiological responses do lead to experiencing emotions. Developing a 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 response 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.

Although the idea that the experience of an emotion occurs alongside the accompanying arousal seems intuitive to our everyday experiences, the psychologists William James and Carl Lange had another idea about the role of arousal. According to the James-Lange theory of emotion, our experience of an emotion is the result of the arousal that we experience. This approach proposes that the arousal and the emotion are not independent, but rather that the emotion depends on the arousal. The fear does not occur along with the racing heart but occurs because of the racing heart. As William James put it, “We feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble” (James, 1884, p. 190).  A fundamental aspect of the James-Lange theory is that different patterns of arousal may create different emotional experiences.

There is research evidence to support each of these theories. The operation of the fast emotional pathway supports the idea that arousal and emotions occur together. The emotional circuits in the limbic system are activated when an emotional stimulus is experienced, and these circuits quickly create corresponding physical reactions (LeDoux, 2000).  The process happens so quickly that it may feel to us as if emotion is simultaneous with our physical arousal.

On the other hand, and as predicted by the James-Lange theory, our experiences of emotion are weaker without arousal. Patients who have spinal injuries that reduce their experience of arousal also report decreases in emotional responses (Hohmann, 1966).  There is also at least some support for the idea that different emotions are produced by different patterns of arousal. People who view fearful faces show more amygdala activation than those who watch angry or joyful faces (Whalen et al., 2001; Witvliet & Vrana, 1995), we experience a red face and flushing when we are embarrassed but not when we experience other e motions (Leary, Britt, Cutlip, & Templeton, 1992), and different hormones are released when we experience compassion than when we experience other e motions (Oatley, Keltner, & Jenkins, 2006). 

The Two-Factor Theory of Emotion

Whereas the James-Lange theory proposes that each emotion has a different pattern of arousal, the two-factor theory of emotion takes the opposite approach, arguing that the arousal that we experience is basically the same in every emotion, and that all emotions (including the basic emotions) are differentiated only by our cognitive appraisal of the source of the arousal. The two-factor theory of emotion asserts that the experience of emotion is determined by the intensity of the arousal we are experiencing, but that the cognitive appraisal of the situation determines what the emotion will be. Because both arousal and appraisal are necessary, we ca n say that emotions have two factors: an arousal factor and a cognitive factor (Schachter & Singer, 1962): 

emotion = arousal + cognition

In some cases it may be difficult for a person who is experiencing a high level of arousal to accurately determine which emotion she is experiencing. That is, she may be certain that she is feeling arousal, but the meaning of the arousal (the cognitive factor) may be less clear. Some romantic relationships, for instance, have a very high level of arousal, and the partners alternatively experience extreme highs and lows in the relationship. One day they are madly in love with each other and the next they are in a huge fight. In situations that are accompanied by high arousal, people may be unsure what emotion they are experiencing. In the high arousal relationship, for instance, the partners may be uncertain whether the emotion they are feeling is love, hate, or both at the same time (sound familiar?). The tendency for people to incorrectly label the source of the arousal that they are experiencing is known as the misattribution of arousal.

In one interesting field study by Dutton and Aron (1974), an attractive young woman approached individual young men as they crossed a wobbly, long suspension walkway hanging more than 200 feet above a river in British Columbia, Canada. The woman asked each man to help her fill out a class questionnaire. When he had finished, she wrote her name and phone number on a piece of paper, and invited him to call if he wanted to hear more about the project. More than half of the men who had been interviewed on the bridge later called the woman. In contrast, men approached by the same woman on a low solid bridge, or who were interviewed on the suspension bridge by men, called significantly less frequently. The idea of misattribution of arousal can explain this result—the men were feeling arousal from the height of the bridge, but they misattributed it as romantic or sexual attraction to the woman, making them more likely to call her.

James-Lange Theory Criticisms

One major criticism of the theory was that neither James nor Lange based their ideas upon anything that remotely resembled controlled experiments. Instead, the theory was largely the result of introspection and correlational research.

Both James and Lange did present some clinical findings to support their theory. For example, Lange cited one physician's observations that blood flow to the skull increased when a patient was angry, which he interpreted as supporting his idea that a physical response to a stimuli led to the experience of that emotion.

It was the later work of neuroscientists and experimental physiologists who demonstrated further flaws with the James-Lange theory of emotions. For example, researchers found that both animals and humans who had experienced major sensory losses were still capable of experiencing emotions.

According to both James and Lange, physiological responses should be necessary to truly experience emotion. However, researchers discovered that even those with muscle paralysis and lack of sensation were able to still feel emotions such as joy, fear, and anger.

Another issue with the theory is that when tested by applying electrical stimulation, applying stimulation to the same site does not lead to the same emotions every time. A person may have the exact same physiological response to a stimulus, yet experience an entirely different emotion.

Factors such as the individual's existing mental state, cues in the environment, and the reactions of other people can all play a role in the resulting emotional response.