Four Theories of Emotion

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There are many theories of emotion but four of them are perhaps the most commonly discussed. They are called the James-Lange theory, Cannon-Bard theory, Schachter-Singer theory, and Opponent Process theory of emotion. The following is a brief explanation of the four theories.

The first one is the oldest of the four. It is known as the James-Lange theory. As you may have guessed, this theory originated from two theorists called William James (1884) and Carl Lange (1887). Even though they developed this theory independently from each other, it is interesting that they came up with the same idea around the same time (1884-1887). This theory says that emotion is not directly caused by the perception of an event but rather by the bodily response caused by the event. This means that, in order to experience emotion, we must first experience the bodily response (e.g., fast breathing, racing heart, sweaty hands) that corresponds to the emotion. Once we experience the bodily response we experience the emotion. For example, if I see a big scary dog barking at me, my heart begins to race. Noticing my heart race, my brain figures out that I am experiencing fear.

The second theory is known as the Cannon-Bard theory. It began with the work of Walter Cannon. He thought that the James-Lange theory was flawed for a number of reasons (Cannon, 1927). In his experiments, he found that in certain animals like cats, emotion occurs even if the brain was cut off from the information about bodily responses. He also argued that the same bodily responses accompany many different emotions. For example, when your heart is racing, it may mean you are angry, but it may also mean you are excited in a positive way. This means that our brain cannot just rely on our bodily responses to know which emotion we are experiencing ( i.e., there must be something else that tells us whether we are angry or excited). Philip Bard agreed with Cannon and continued examining emotion in the brain. Through their research, Cannon and Bard concluded the experience of an emotion does not depend on input from the body and how it is responding. Both the experience of the emotion and the bodily response occur at the same time independently of each other.

Many years later, two psychologists called Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer proposed another theory. Their theory, known as the Schachter-Singer theory, suggests that experiencing an emotion requires both bodily response and an interpretation of the bodily response by considering the particular situation the person is in at the moment (Schachter & Singer, 1962). If my heart is racing and an alligator is chasing me, I might interpret that as fear. If my heart is racing and I am looking at the person I am in love with, I might interpret that as excitement. Even though the bodily response is the same, I might experience very different emotions depending on the type of situation I am in.

The fourth commonly discussed theory of emotion is known as the Opponent-Process Theory of emotion developed by two psychologists called Richard Solomon and John Corbit. This theory is a completely different type of theory and explains our experience of emotions in relation to its opposites. Richard Solomon and John Corbit suggest that the experience of an emotion disrupts the body's state of balance and that our basic emotions typically have their opposing counterparts (Solomon & Corbit, 1974). For example, the opposite of pleasure is pain, the opposite of fear is relief, the opposite of depression is elation, etc. When we experience one emotion, it suppresses the opposite emotion. Once the initial emotion subsides, we naturally experience the opposing emotion to balance out the two. For example, we might feel a high level of fear before bungee jumping off the ledge. After the jump, we feel a high level of relief, the opposite emotion of fear. This theory is also commonly used to explain drug addiction. The pleasure associated with taking an addictive drug makes us feel the painful withdrawal effect of the drug afterwards. To escape this painful withdrawal effect, the addict takes more of the drug right away. But because we are trying to experience pleasure from a state of experiencing pain (and not a normal state) we need more of the drug than before. This is considered to be what creates the addictive cycle of drugs.


Cannon, W. B. (1927) The James-Lange theory of emotion: A critical examination and an alternative theory. American Journal of Psychology, 39, 10-124.

James, W. (1884). What is emotion?, Mind, 9, 188-205.

Lange, C. (1887). Ueber Gemuthsbewgungen, 3, 8.

Schachter, S. & Singer, J. E. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379-399.

Solomon, R.L. & Corbit, J.D. (1974). An opponent-process theory of motivation: I. Temporal dynamics of affect. Psychological Review, 81, 119-145.

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