What Is the James-Lange Theory of Emotion?

Definition and Examples

People on a roller coaster laugh and smile.

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The James-Lange theory suggests that emotions are the result of physical changes in the body. According to James and Lange, our body’s responses to an emotional event—such as a racing heart rate or sweating, for example—are what make up our emotional experience.

Key Takeaways: James-Lange Theory

  • The James-Lange theory suggests that emotions have a physical basis in the body.
  • When we see something emotional, changes occur in the body—and these changes make up our emotional experience.
  • Although the James-Lange theory has been challenged by other theorists, it has been incredibly influential in the study of human emotions.

Overview

The James-Lange theory was developed in the late 1800s by William James and Carl Lange, who each separately published similar writings about the nature of emotion. According to James and Lange, emotions consist of the body’s physical responses to something in the environment. When you witness something emotional, this leads to changes in the body. For example, your heart rate or blood pressure might increase, you might start sweating, or you might start breathing more quickly.

James famously explained the theory in his book The Principles of Psychology: he writes that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.” In other words, our emotional reactions consist of our physical responses to potentially emotional events in the environment. James suggests that these physical reactions are key to our emotions and that, without them, our experiences would be “pale, colorless, [and] destitute of emotional warmth.”

Examples

To understand the James-Lange theory, consider the following example. Imagine you’re walking on a darkened road and you hear a rustling in the bushes nearby. Your heart starts racing and you feel ready to start running if need be. According to James, these bodily sensations would constitute an emotion—in this case, the feeling of fear. Importantly, our heart doesn’t start beating faster because we feel afraid; instead, these changes in our body comprise the emotion of fear.

The theory seeks to explain not just negative states—like fear and anger—but positive ones as well. For example, the emotion of amusement is typically accompanied by laughter.

Comparison to Related Theories

The James-Lange theory has been somewhat controversial—when writing about his theory, James acknowledged that many other researchers took issue with aspects of his ideas. One of the most well-known critiques of the James-Lange theory is the Cannon-Bard theory, put forward by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard in the 1920s. According to this theory, many emotions produce similar physiological responses: for example, think about how both fear and excitement lead to a faster heart rate. Because of this, Cannon and Bard suggested that emotions can’t only consist of our physiological response to something in the environment. Instead, Cannon and Bard suggest, emotional and physiological responses both happen—but these are two separate processes.

A later theory, the Schachter-Singer theory of emotion (also called the two-factor theory), suggests that emotion results from both physiological and cognitive processes. Essentially, something emotional will trigger changes in the body, and our brain then tries to interpret what these changes mean. For example, if you’re walking alone at night and hear a loud noise, you’ll become startled—and your brain will interpret this as fear. However, if you’re walking into your home and are suddenly started by your friends jumping out to greet you on your birthday, your brain will recognize that you’re at a surprise party and you’ll be more likely to feel excited. Like the James-Lange theory, the Schachter-Singer theory acknowledges the role of physiological changes in our emotions—but it suggests that cognitive factors also play a role in the emotions we experience.

Research on the James-Lange Theory

While newer theories of emotion have been developed since the James-Lange theory was first proposed, it has still been an influential theory in the field of psychology. Since the theory was developed, numerous researchers have sought to understand how different types of bodily responses relate to emotions. For example, research has looked at whether different emotions are associated with different types of responses by the body’s autonomic nervous system. In other words, the James-Lange theory has inspired a significant amount of research on the connections between our bodies and our emotions, a topic which is still an active area of research today.

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