The 6 Major Theories of Emotion

There are many different theories of emotion that seek to explain the purpose, causes, and effects of the emotional reactions people experience. Emotions exert an incredibly powerful force on human behavior. Strong emotions can cause you to take actions you might not normally perform or to avoid situations you enjoy.

Why exactly do we have emotions? What causes them? Researchers, philosophers, and psychologists have proposed various theories of emotion to explain the how and why behind our feelings.

Emotion is a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behavior. Such feelings include physiological arousal, conscious experiences, and behavioral expressions. Emotionality is associated with a range of psychological phenomena, including temperament, personality, mood, and motivation.

Types of Theories of Emotion

The major theories of emotion can be grouped into three main categories:

  1. Physiological theories suggest that responses within the body are responsible for emotions.
  2. Neurological theories propose that activity within the brain leads to emotional responses.
  3. Cognitive theories argue that thoughts and other mental activities play an essential role in forming emotions.

In addition to these three main categories, there are six main theories of emotion that have been proposed by psychologists: evolutionary theory, James-Lange theory, Cannon-Bard theory, Schachter-Singer theory, cognitive appraisal theory, and facial-feedback theory.

Categories for theories of emotion

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

Evolutionary Theory of Emotion

Naturalist Charles Darwin proposed that emotions evolved because they were adaptive and allowed humans and animals to survive and reproduce. Feelings of love and affection lead people to seek mates and reproduce. Feelings of fear compel people to fight or flee the source of danger.

According to the evolutionary theory of emotion, our emotions exist because they serve an adaptive role. Emotions motivate people to respond quickly to stimuli in the environment, which helps improve the chances of success and survival.

Understanding the emotions of other people and animals also plays a crucial role in safety and survival. If you encounter a hissing, spitting, and clawing animal, chances are you will quickly realize that the animal is frightened or defensive and leave it alone. Being able to interpret correctly the emotional displays of other people and animals allows you to respond correctly and avoid danger.

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion

The James-Lange theory is one of the best-known examples of a physiological theory of emotion. Independently proposed by psychologist William James and physiologist Carl Lange, the James-Lange theory of emotion suggests that emotions occur as a result of physiological reactions to events.

According to the James-Lange theory of emotion, an external stimulus leads to a physiological reaction. Your emotional reaction depends upon how you interpret those physical reactions.

For example, suppose you are walking in the woods and see a grizzly bear. You begin to tremble, and your heart begins to race. The James-Lange theory proposes that you will conclude that you are frightened ("I am trembling. Therefore, I am afraid"). According to this theory of emotion, you are not trembling because you are frightened. Instead, you feel frightened because you are trembling.

The Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

Another well-known physiological theory is the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion. Walter Cannon disagreed with the James-Lange theory of emotion on several different grounds. First, he suggested, people can experience physiological reactions linked to emotions without actually feeling those emotions. For example, your heart might race because you have been exercising, not because you are afraid.

Cannon also suggested that emotional responses occur much too quickly to be simply products of physical states. When you encounter a danger in the environment, you will often feel afraid before you start to experience the physical symptoms associated with fear, such as shaking hands, rapid breathing, and a racing heart.

According to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, we feel emotions and experience physiological reactions such as sweating, trembling, and muscle tension simultaneously.

Cannon first proposed his theory in the 1920s, and his work was later expanded on by physiologist Philip Bard during the 1930s.

More specifically, the theory proposes that emotions result when the thalamus sends a message to the brain in response to a stimulus, resulting in a physiological reaction. At the same time, the brain also receives signals triggering the emotional experience. Cannon and Bard’s theory suggests that the physical and psychological experience of emotion happen at the same time and that one does not cause the other.

Schachter-Singer Theory

Also known as the two-factor theory of emotion, the Schachter-Singer theory is an example of a cognitive theory of emotion. This theory suggests that the physiological arousal occurs first, and then the individual must identify the reason for this arousal to experience and label it as an emotion. A stimulus leads to a physiological response that is then cognitively interpreted and labeled, resulting in an emotion.

Schachter and Singer’s theory draws on both the James-Lange theory and the Cannon-Bard theory. Like the James-Lange theory, the Schachter-Singer theory proposes that people infer emotions based on physiological responses. The critical factor is the situation and the cognitive interpretation that people use to label that emotion.

The Schachter-Singer theory is a cognitive theory of emotion that suggests our thoughts are responsible for emotions.

Like the Cannon-Bard theory, the Schachter-Singer theory also suggests that similar physiological responses can produce varying emotions. For example, if you experience a racing heart and sweating palms during an important exam, you will probably identify the emotion as anxiety. If you experience the same physical responses on a date, you might interpret those responses as love, affection, or arousal.

Cognitive Appraisal Theory

According to appraisal theories of emotion, thinking must occur first before experiencing emotion. Richard Lazarus was a pioneer in this area of emotion, and this theory is often referred to as the Lazarus theory of emotion.

The cognitive appraisal theory asserts that your brain first appraises a situation, and the resulting response is an emotion.

According to this theory, the sequence of events first involves a stimulus, followed by thought, which then leads to the simultaneous experience of a physiological response and the emotion. For example, if you encounter a bear in the woods, you might immediately begin to think that you are in great danger. This then leads to the emotional experience of fear and the physical reactions associated with the fight-or-flight response.

Facial-Feedback Theory of Emotion

The facial-feedback theory of emotions suggests that facial expressions are connected to experiencing emotions. Charles Darwin and William James both noted early on that, sometimes, physiological responses often have a direct impact on emotion, rather than simply being a consequence of the emotion.

The facial-feedback theory suggests that emotions are directly tied to changes in facial muscles. For example, people who are forced to smile pleasantly at a social function will have a better time at the event than they would if they had frowned or carried a more neutral facial expression.

A Word From Verywell

Despite the fact that emotions impact every decision we make and the way we see the world, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding why we have emotions. Theories of emotion continue to evolve, exploring what causes feelings and how these feelings affect us.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.