10 Cannon-Bard Theory Examples & Definition

cannon bard theory examples and definition

According to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, stimulating events trigger feelings and physical reactions that occur simultaneously. For example, seeing a bear simultaneously triggers the feeling of fear and the physiological response of trembling.

According to Cannon-Bard theory, these occur at the same time and independently of one another. In other words, the physiological response does not determine the emotional reaction and vice versa.

Cannon’s and Bard’s theory was a response to earlier theories of emotion, such as the James-Lange theory (Cannon, 1927; 1931; Lang, 1994; Dalgleish, 2004), which suggested that emotions are simply a result of physiological arousal without any cognitive component and that arousal precedes emotional experiences. 

The Cannon-Bard theory proposed that the physiological changes and subjective feelings of emotion in response to stimuli are separate and independent. Arousal is not a necessary precursor to emotions.

The theory was influenced by several other theories and ideas in psychology, including cognitive theories of emotion, physiological theories of emotion, and theories of motivation and learning.

They also drew on research on the relationship between cognition and emotion in animals and humans to develop their theory.

Definition of Cannon-Bard Theory

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion proposes that physiological arousal and the experience of emotion occur simultaneously, rather than emotion being the result of physiological arousal. Therefore, emotion and physiological arousal are seen as separate and independent.

Unlike James-Lange theory, Cannon-Bard theory does not consider arousal to be a necessary precursor of emotions.

The key premise of this theory is that bodily changes and emotional experiences occur almost simultaneously with the emotional experience.

The bodily and emotional changes are separate and independent. Physiological arousal does not have to precede emotional experience, as James-Lange theory would suggest.

So, for example, thinking about the exam you have tomorrow triggers the feeling of anxiety and the physiological response of an increased heart rate. According to Cannon-Bard theory, these occur simultaneously and aren’t dependent on one another. A racing heartbeat does not determine the feeling of anxiety and vice versa.

According to Cannon-Bard theory, the sequence of events in experiencing an emotion looks something like the following:

  1. Stimulus
  2. Physiological response pattern + affective experience simultaneously occurring.

Examples of Cannon-Bard Theory

  • A phone call from an unknown number: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased heart rate, sweaty palms) and labels it as anxiety after receiving a phone call from an unknown number. According to the theory, the individual’s emotional response of anxiety and their physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Being cut off in traffic: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased blood pressure, clenched fists) and labels it as anger after being cut off in traffic. The individual’s emotional response of anger and their physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Breaking up with a romantic partner: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., decreased endorphin levels, tearfulness) and labels it as sadness after breaking up with a partner. The individual’s emotional response of sadness and their physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Hearing about new opportunities: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased endorphin levels, racing thoughts) and labels it as excitement after hearing about a new opportunity. The individual’s emotional response of excitement and physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Hearing noises in the dark: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased adrenaline levels, goosebumps) and labels it as fear after hearing a loud noise in the dark. The individual’s emotional response of fear and their physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Lying to a friend: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased adrenaline levels, butterflies in the stomach) and labels it as guilt after lying to a friend. The individual’s emotional response of guilt and their physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Receiving a deadline: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased cortisol levels, racing thoughts) and labels it as stress after receiving a deadline for a work project. The individual’s emotional response of stress and their physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Receiving a gift from a loved one: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased endorphin levels, smile) and labels it as happiness after receiving a gift from a loved one. The individual’s emotional response of happiness and their physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Seeing a bug: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased adrenaline levels, wrinkled nose) and labels it as disgust after seeing a bug crawl on their food. The individual’s emotional response of disgust and physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Seeing a snake: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased heart rate, dry mouth) and labels it as fear after seeing a snake. The individual’s emotional response of fear and their physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Seeing an ex with a new partner: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased cortisol levels, racing thoughts) and labels it as jealousy after seeing a friend with a new partner. The individual’s emotional response of jealousy and physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.
  • Tripping in public: A person experiences physiological arousal (e.g., increased cortisol levels, blushing) and labels it as embarrassment after tripping in public. The individual’s emotional response of embarrassment and their physiological arousal are occurring simultaneously and independently of one another.

Origins of the Cannon-Bard Theory

The theory was proposed by psychologists Walter Bradford Cannon and his doctoral student, Philip E. Bard, in the 1920s and 1930s.

It was an attempt to explain the role of cognition in emotion, which region of the brain is responsible for emotions, the relationship between emotional experiences and physiological responses, and to criticize earlier theories that suggested that emotions were simply a result of physiological arousal without any cognitive component (Friedman, 2010).

Cannon (1927; 1931) offered several arguments for his idea that the thalamic region of the brain is the coordinating center for emotional reactions:

  1. After the removal of the cerebrum anterior to the thalamus in animal test subjects, the animals continued to display rage-like emotional responses. The reactions stopped after the thalamus was removed (Bard, 1928).
  2. A tumor on one side of the thalamus can result in unilateral laughter or grimace under specific conditions. Cortical and voluntary control of the same muscles is, however, bilateral (Cannon, 1927).
  3. Temporary impairment of cortical control of lower centers from mild amnesia or permanent impairment can cause uncontrollable and prolonged weeping or laughter (Cannon, 1927).

Criticisms of Cannon-Bard Theory

The theory is not without flaws. One of the most common criticisms of Cannon-Bard theory is that its assumption is false.

Namely, the assumption that physiological responses and emotions are independent of one another.

Research on facial expressions and emotions suggests that physiological and emotional responses are connected.

For example, several studies have shown that participants who are asked to make a particular facial expression are likely to experience the emotional response that is connected with that expression (Laird, 2014).

Conclusion

Overall, the cannon-bard theory suggests that emotions and physiological arousal are two separate and distinct responses to stimuli that can occur simultaneously and independently of one another. It also suggests that the thalamic region of the brain is the main coordinator of emotions.

Research into emotional processes in the brain is still in the exploration stage, and theories of emotion continue to change and develop. The Cannon-Bard theory of emotions is one of the oldest. It was first conceived as a response to an even earlier theory of emotions: the James-Lange theory.

References

Bard, P. (1928). A diencephalic mechanism for the expression of rage with special reference to the sympathetic nervous system. American Journal of Physiology-Legacy Content, 84(3), 490–515. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajplegacy.1928.84.3.490

Cannon, W. B. (1927). The James-Lange Theory of Emotions: A Critical Examination and an Alternative Theory. The American Journal of Psychology, 39(1/4), 106–124. https://doi.org/10.2307/1415404

Cannon, W. B. (1931). Again the James-Lange and the thalamic theories of emotion. Psychological Review, 38, 281–295. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0072957

Dalgleish, T. (2004). The emotional brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(7), Article 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1432

Friedman, B. H. (2010). Feelings and the body: The Jamesian perspective on autonomic specificity of emotion. Biological Psychology, 84(3), 383–393. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2009.10.006

Laird, J. (2014). Bodily Influences on Emotional Feelings: Accumulating Evidence and Extensions of William James’s Theory of Emotion. Emotion Review. Lang, P. J. (1994). The varieties of emotional experience: A meditation on James-Lange theory. Psychological Review, 101(2), 211–221. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.101.2.211

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

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