Comparing the 5 Theories of Emotionby Beppe Micallef-Trigona, MD, MRCPsych, MSc | October 22, 2014
Emotions seem to dominate many aspects of our lives. But what exactly are emotions?
The word first appears in our language in the mid-16th century, adapted from the French word émouvoir, which literally means, “to stir up”. However, one can find precursors to the word emotion dating back to the earliest known recordings of language. When searching for a definition, Hockenbury describes an emotion as “a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and an expressive response.”
Researchers have long studied how and why people experience emotion and a number of theories have been proposed. In order to compare and contrast these theories of emotion it is helpful to first explain them in terms of the interactions between their components: an emotion-arousing stimulus, a response of physiological arousal, a response of cognitive appraisal, and the subjective experience of emotion.
According to the James-Lange theory, initially proposed by James and around the same time also by Lange, the stimulus leads to the arousal that leads to the emotion. The sound of a gun shot, for example, leads to the physiological responses like rapid heart rate and trembling that lead to the subjective experience of fear. On the other hand, according to the Cannon-Bard theory, proposed first by Cannon and later extended by Bard, the stimulus leads to both the arousal and the emotion. The sound of a gun shot, for example, leads both to the physiological responses like rapid heart rate and trembling and to the subjective experience of fear.
The two most well-known cognitive theories are the two-factor and the cognitive-mediational theories of emotion. According to the two-factor theory, proposed by Schachter and Singer, the stimulus leads to the arousal that is labelled using the cognition that leads to the emotion. The sound of a gunshot, for example, leads to the physiological responses like rapid heart rate and trembling that are interpreted as fear and lead to the subjective experience of fear.
According to the cognitive-mediational theory, proposed by Lazarus, the stimulus leads to the personal meaning arrived at using cognition that leads to both the arousal and the emotion. The sound of a gunshot, for example, is interpreted as something potentially dangerous and leads to both the physiological responses like a rapid heart rate and trembling and the subjective experience of fear.
Finally, according to the facial feedback theory, emotion is the experience of changes in our facial muscles. In other words, when we smile, we then experience pleasure, or happiness. When we frown, we then experience sadness. It is the changes in our facial muscles that cue our brains and provide the basis of our emotions. Just as there are an unlimited number of muscle configurations in our face, so to are there a seemingly unlimited number of emotions. The sound of a gunshot, for example causes your eyes to widen, your teeth clench and your brain interprets these facial changes as the expression of fear. Therefore, you experience the emotion of fear.
By breaking them down in this way, one can already notice the differences and similarities between the different theories, as one can clearly identify the components that exist in each theory and the order in which they occur. As can be seem from the above, the James-Lange and Cannon-Bard theories are fundamentally similar in that they both involve the same three components but different in how they handle the timing of when arousal and emotion occur. They differ from the two cognitive theories in that both of them do not explicitly acknowledge any role of cognition.
Regarding the similarities, the sequence of the three components in both the James-Lange and two-factor theories and in both the Cannon-Bard and cognitive-mediational theories is the same, the fundamental difference between the two theories comprising each pair being the addition of a cognition component at some point in the sequence in the cognitive theories.
Hockenbury & Hockenbury (2007). Discovering Psychology: Fourth Edition. New York: Worth Publishers, Inc.
JAMES, W. (1884). II.—WHAT IS AN EMOTION ? Mind, os-IX (34), 188-205 DOI: 10.1093/mind/os-IX.34.188
Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Myers, D. G. (2004). Theories of Emotion. Psychology: Seventh Edition, New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
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