10 James-Lange Theory Examples

james lange theory examples and definition

The James-Lange theory is a hypothesis on the origin and nature of emotions. The main idea of James-Lange theory is that emotions are not caused by cognitive processes, such as thinking about or interpreting the stimulus, but rather by the physiological arousal that is elicited by the stimulus.

According to this theory, the specific emotion that a person experiences is determined by their interpretation of the arousal, which may be influenced by their past experiences and cognitive and emotional state (Cannon, 1927).

The theory posits that emotions are experienced after the brain reacts to the information received through the nervous system.

Definition of James-Lange Theory

The James-Lange theory of emotion is a psychological theory that proposes that emotions are the result of physiological arousal and that the specific emotion that a person experiences is determined by their interpretation of the arousal.

According to this theory, when a person encounters a stimulus that elicits an emotional response, their body responds by activating the sympathetic nervous system and releasing certain hormones, such as adrenaline.

This physiological arousal leads to changes in the body, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and perspiration.

The James-Lange theory proposes that the specific emotion that a person experiences is determined by their interpretation of these physiological changes.

The theory was developed mainly by John Dewey who, according to Lisa Feldman Barrett (2017), misread the theories of William James.

It has been criticized by many and remains one of several competing theories of emotion (Dalgleish, 2004). According to several scholars, the James-Lange theory is hard to disprove entirely (George et al., 2002).

Sequence of Events in Emotional Experiences

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

  1. Emotional stimulus, followed by
  2. Physiological response pattern, followed by
  3. Affective experience.

For example, if a person sees a snake and experiences an increase in heart rate and perspiration, they might interpret these physiological changes as fear and experience the emotion of fear.

If a person sees a loved one and experiences the same physiological changes, they might interpret these changes as love and experience the emotion of love.

For a competing perspective, see the Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotions.

Examples of James-Lange Theory

1. Seeing a Snake

When a person sees a snake, their body may respond with physiological arousal, such as an increased heart rate and perspiration.

According to the James-Lange theory, the person may interpret these physiological changes as fear and experience the emotion of fear.

While most would think that first a person sees a snake, becomes afraid, and runs away, James-Lange theory proposes that the physiological response comes first (such as trembling, increased heart rate, faster breathing, etc.) then the person perceives this as an emotion (fear, for example), and finally acts.

2. Seeing a Loved One

According to the James-Lange theory of emotion, when a person sees a loved one, their body responds with physiological arousal, such as an increased heart rate and perspiration.

The specific emotion that the person experiences is determined by their interpretation of this arousal.

In the case of seeing a loved one, the person may interpret the physiological arousal as love and experience the emotion of love. This interpretation may be based on the person’s past experiences of feeling love and the associated physiological arousal, as well as their current cognitive and emotional state.

3. Receiving Good News

When a person receives good news, their body may first respond with physiological arousal.

According to the James-Lange theory, the person may interpret these physiological changes as happiness and experience the emotion of happiness.

This interpretation may be based on the person’s past experiences of feeling happiness and the associated physiological arousal, as well as their current cognitive and emotional state.

The James-Lange theory proposes that emotions are not caused by cognitive processes, such as thinking about or interpreting the stimulus, but rather by the physiological arousal that is elicited by the stimulus.

4. Receiving Bad News

When a person receives bad news, their body may also respond with physiological arousal.

According to the James-Lange theory, the person may interpret these physiological changes as sadness and experience the emotion of sadness.

This interpretation may be based on the person’s past experiences of feeling sadness and the associated physiological arousal, as well as their current cognitive and emotional state.

5. Engaging in Physical Activity

When a person engages in physical activity, their body may respond with physiological arousal, such as an increased heart rate and perspiration.

According to the James-Lange theory, the person may interpret these physiological changes as excitement or joy and experience the emotion of excitement or joy.

This interpretation may be based on the person’s past experiences of feeling excited or joyful during physical activity and the associated physiological arousal, as well as their current cognitive and emotional state.

According to this theory, the specific emotion that a person experiences is determined by their interpretation of the arousal, which may be influenced by their past experiences and cognitive and emotional state.

6. Experiencing Fear

When someone hears breaking glass and assumes that a burglar is trying to break into their house, James would argue that they are experiencing the physiological reaction of trembling and an increased heart rate because they are afraid of a potential burglar.

Conversely, if the person heard glass breaking and thought it was their roommate being careless, they would have a similar physiological reaction due to their anger.

7. Being in a Dangerous Situation

According to the James-Lange theory of emotion, when a person is in a dangerous situation, their body has a physiological response.

For example, the person may interpret the physiological arousal as fear and experience the emotion of fear.

This interpretation may be based on the person’s past experiences of feeling fear in dangerous situations and the associated physiological arousal, as well as their current cognitive and emotional state.

8. Breaking Up

When a person breaks up with their partner, their body may respond with physiological arousal, such as an increased heart rate and trembling.

The person may interpret the physiological arousal as an experience of the emotion of sadness.

This interpretation may be based on the person’s past experiences of feeling sad and the associated physiological arousal, as well as their current cognitive and emotional state.

Other theories propose that emotions are not simply the result of physiological arousal but are also influenced by cognitive processes, such as the interpretation of the stimulus and the person’s past experiences and memories.

9. Seeing Someone in Distress

When a person sees someone in distress, their body may respond with physiological arousal, such as an increased heart rate and perspiration.

According to the James-Lange theory, the person may interpret these physiological changes as compassion and experience the emotion of compassion.

10. Listening to Music

When a person listens to music, their body may respond with physiological arousal, such as an increased heart rate and perspiration.

According to the James-Lange theory, the person may interpret these physiological changes as the emotion evoked by the music and experience that emotion.

For example, if the music is joyful, the person may interpret the physiological arousal as happiness and experience the emotion of happiness.

Conclusion

The James-Lange theory of emotion is a psychological theory that proposes that emotions are the result of physiological arousal and that the specific emotion that a person experiences is determined by their interpretation of the arousal.

It’s important to note that the James-Lange theory is just one theory of emotion. Other theories propose alternative explanations for the relationship between emotion and physiological arousal. Some of these theories propose that emotions are not simply the result of physiological arousal, but are also influenced by cognitive processes, such as the interpretation of the stimulus and the person’s past experiences or memories.

References

Barrett, L. F. (2017). How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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

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

Dewey, J. (1894). The theory of emotion: I: Emotional attitudes. Psychological Review, 1, 553–569. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0069054

George, M. S., Nahas, Z., Bohning, D. E., Kozel, F. A., Anderson, B., Chae, J.-H., Lomarev, M., Denslow, S., Li, X., & Mu, C. (2002). Vagus nerve stimulation therapy: A research update. Neurology, 59(6 suppl 4), S56–S61. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.59.6_suppl_4.S56

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

Tio Gabunia (B.Arch, M.Arch)
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Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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