Schachter-Singer Theory – Examples and Definition

schachter-singer theory examples and definition

The Schachter-Singer theory of emotion, also known as the two-factor theory of emotion, posits that emotional experiences are based on two factors: (1) physiological arousal and (2) cognitive label.

According to Schachter-Singer theory, when an emotion is felt, a physiological response occurs, and the person experiencing the emotion uses the immediate environment to search for cues to label this physiological arousal (Schachter & Singer, 1962).

It follows that when the brain does not know why it feels a certain emotion, it relies on external stimulation for cues on how to label it (Cotton, 1981; Marshall & Zimbardo, 1979). This can lead to misinterpretations of emotions.

Definition of Schachter Singer Theory

The Schachter-Singer theory of emotion, also known as the two-factor theory of emotion, is a psychological theory that suggests that emotions are the result of the interaction between physiological arousal and cognitive interpretation.

According to this theory, emotions are not a direct result of a particular stimulus but of the combination of physiological arousal and the individual’s interpretation of that arousal.

According to the Schachter-Singer theory, physiological arousal is the first factor that contributes to emotion. This arousal can be caused by a wide variety of stimuli, including physical sensations, thoughts, and behaviors. The second factor is the cognitive interpretation of this arousal, which refers to the individual’s perceptions and beliefs about the arousal and its cause.

The Schachter-Singer theory proposes that the specific emotion that an individual experiences is determined by their interpretation of the arousal they are feeling.

For example, if an individual is feeling a high level of physiological arousal, they may interpret this arousal as fear if they believe they are in a dangerous situation, or as excitement if they believe they are about to experience something enjoyable.

The Schachter-Singer theory suggests that emotions are not a simple response to stimuli but rather the result of the complex interaction between physiological arousal and cognitive interpretation. This theory goes against earlier theories of emotion, such as James-Lange theory and Cannon-Bard theory.

The 3 Schachter-Singer Hypotheses

This theory was first developed in the 1960s by researchers Stanley Schachter and Jerome E. Singer, although the contributions of Gregorio Marañon (Cornelius, 1991) should also be acknowledged.

The original study conducted by Schachter and Singer (1962) tested how people use cues in their environment to explain the physiological changes they experience. The researchers had three main hypotheses: 

  1. If a person experiences a state of arousal for which they have no immediate explanation, they will label this state and describe their feelings in terms of the cognitions available to them at the time.
  2. If a person experiences a state of arousal for which they have an appropriate explanation (e.g. ‘I feel this way because I have just received an injection of adrenaline’), then they will be unlikely to label their feelings in terms of the alternative cognitions available.
  3. If a person is put in a situation, which in the past could have made them feel an emotion, they will react emotionally or experience emotions only if they are in a state of physiological arousal.

Examples of Schachter-Singer Theory

  • Being late for an important meeting: A person is running late for an important meeting. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the stress and frustration of being late, such as an increased heart rate and sweating. The person interprets this arousal as anger, as they believe they are being inconvenienced and annoyed. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s anger is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as anger.
  • Being stuck in a crowded and confined place: A person is stuck in a crowded and noisy subway station and feels overwhelmed and anxious. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the overwhelming and stressful stimulus of the crowded and noisy station, such as an increased heart rate. The person interprets this arousal as anxiety, as they believe they are in a chaotic and uncomfortable situation. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s anxiety is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as anxiety.
  • Getting in a car accident: A person is in a car accident and feels a sudden fear. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the perceived danger and fear of the car accident. The person interprets this arousal as fear, as they believe they are in a potentially dangerous situation. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s fear is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as fear.
  • Receiving a gift: A person receives a surprise gift and feels a sudden surge of joy. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the surprise and happiness of the gift, such as an increased heart rate and faster breathing. The person interprets this arousal as joy, as they believe they are experiencing something positive and enjoyable. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s joy is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as joy.
  • Reuniting with a lost friend: A person is reunited with a long-lost friend. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the happiness and excitement of the reunion. The person interprets this arousal as joy, as they believe they are experiencing something positive and enjoyable. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s joy is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as joy.
  • Seeing a bear: A person sees a bear while hiking in the woods. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the perceived threat of the bear, such as an increased heart rate and hyperventilation. The person interprets this arousal as fear, as they believe they are in a dangerous situation. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s fear is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as fear.
  • Seeing a beautiful piece of art: A person sees a beautiful piece of art and experiences a sudden sense of awe. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the visually pleasing stimulus of the art, such as an increased heart rate. The person interprets this arousal as awe, as they believe they are experiencing something beautiful and inspiring. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s awe is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as awe.
  • Sitting on a rollercoaster: A person is about to go on a roller coaster and feels a sudden excitement. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the anticipation and excitement of the roller coaster. The person interprets this arousal as excitement, as they believe they are about to experience something thrilling and enjoyable. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s excitement is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as excitement.
  • Speaking to a large audience: A person is about to go on stage to give a speech. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the anticipation and stress of the situation. The person interprets this arousal as nervousness, as they believe they are about to do something challenging and potentially embarrassing. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s nervousness is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as nervousness.
  • Watching an exciting movie: A person is watching a suspenseful movie. The person’s body experiences physiological arousal due to the tension and excitement of the movie. The person interprets this arousal as excitement, as they believe they are experiencing something thrilling and enjoyable. According to the Schachter-Singer theory, the person’s excitement is the result of the combination of the physiological arousal and their interpretation of that arousal as excitement.

Criticisms of Schachter Singer Theory

Most criticisms of their theory come from attempted replications of the original study. Marshall and Zimbardo (1979), for example, tried to replicate the study conducted by Schachter and Singer but got different results.

From a theoretical standpoint, the most well-known criticism of the two-factor theory of emotion is that it provides no account of the emotional process within the central nervous system (LeDoux, 1995).

You can also see the Cannon-Bard Theory and James-Lange Theory for competing perspectives.

Conclusion

The Schachter-Singer theory, also known as the two-factor theory of emotion, suggests that emotions result from the interaction between physiological arousal and cognitive interpretation. In other words, emotions are not simply a response to a particular stimulus but the product of bodily arousal and the individual’s interpretation of that arousal.

The Schachter-Singer theory is just one of many competing theories of emotion. Like any other theory, it is not without its critics.

References

Cornelius, R. R. (1991). Gregorio Marafion’s Two-Factor Theory of Emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(1), 65–69. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167291171010

Cotton, J. L. (1981). A review of research on Schachter’s theory of emotion and the misattribution of Arousal. European Journal of Social Psychology, 11(4), 365–397. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2420110403

LeDoux, J. E. (1995). Emotion: Clues from the Brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 46(1), 209–235. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ps.46.020195.001233

Marshall, G. D., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1979). Affective consequences of inadequately explained physiological arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 970–988. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.37.6.970

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379–399. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0046234

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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