The James-Lange Theory of Emotion

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The James-Lange theory of emotion suggests that physical changes in the body happen first, which then leads to the experience of emotion. Essentially, emotions stem from your interpretation of your physical sensations. For example, your heart beating wildly would lead you to realize that you are afraid.

This theory is one of the earliest attempts to explain what causes emotions. Proposed independently by psychologist William James and physiologist Carl Lange, the James-Lange theory of emotion suggested that emotions occur as a result of physiological reactions to events.

In other words, this theory proposes that people have a physiological response to environmental stimuli and that their interpretation of that physical response is what leads to an emotional experience.

James-Lange Theory of Emotion
Hugo Lin / Verywell

How Does the James-Lange Theory Work?

According to this theory, witnessing an external stimulus leads to a physiological response. Your emotional reaction depends on how you interpret those physical reactions.


Suppose you are walking in the woods, and you see a grizzly bear. You begin to tremble, and your heart begins to race. The James-Lange theory proposes that you will interpret your physical reactions and conclude that you are frightened ("I am trembling. Therefore I am afraid.")

William James explained, "My thesis, on the contrary, is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion."

For another example, imagine that you are walking through a dark parking garage toward your car. You notice a dark figure trailing behind you and your heart begins to race. According to the James-Lange theory, you then interpret your physical reactions to the stimulus as fear. Therefore, you feel frightened and rush to your car as quickly as you can.

Both James and Lange believed that while it was possible to imagine experiencing an emotion such as fear or anger, your imagined version of the emotion would be a flat facsimile of the real feeling.

Why? Because they felt that without the actual physiological response that they believed precipitated the emotions, it would be impossible to experience these emotions "on demand." In other words, the physical reaction needs to be present in order to actually experience real emotion.

Impact of the James-Lange Theory

Prior to the James-Lange theory, the standard line of thought was that people the first reaction to perception was cognitive. Physical responses then occurred as a reaction to that thought. The James-Lange approach instead suggested that these physiological responses occur first and that they play a major role in the experience of emotion.

While it might seem like a small distinction in the sequence of events, the theory had an important impact on psychology and the understanding of emotions.  While influential, however, not everyone agreed that physical responses were what led to emotions.

The German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt was one of the first to critique the theory. He instead suggested that emotions were a primal, hard-wired sensory response. It was not long before other researchers challenged this viewpoint and proposed their own theories to explain the emotional experience.

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, proposed in the 1920s by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, directly challenged the James-Lange theory. Cannon and Bard's theory instead suggests that our physiological reactions, such as crying and trembling, are caused by our emotions.

While modern researchers largely discount the James-Lange theory, there are some instances where physiological responses do lead to experiencing emotions. Developing a panic disorder and specific phobias are two examples.

For example, a person may experience a physiological reaction such as becoming ill in public, which then leads to an emotional response such as feeling anxious. If an association is formed between the situation and the emotional state, the individual might begin avoiding anything that might then trigger that particular emotion.

James-Lange Theory Criticisms

One major criticism of the theory was that neither James nor Lange based their ideas upon anything that remotely resembled controlled experiments. Instead, the theory was largely the result of introspection and correlational research.

Both James and Lange did present some clinical findings to support their theory. For example, Lange cited one physician's observations that blood flow to the skull increased when a patient was angry, which he interpreted as supporting his idea that a physical response to a stimuli led to the experience of that emotion.

It was the later work of neuroscientists and experimental physiologists who demonstrated further flaws with the James-Lange theory of emotions. For example, researchers found that both animals and humans who had experienced major sensory losses were still capable of experiencing emotions.

According to both James and Lange, physiological responses should be necessary to truly experience emotion. However, researchers discovered that even those with muscle paralysis and lack of sensation were able to still feel emotions such as joy, fear, and anger.

Another issue with the theory is that when tested by applying electrical stimulation, applying stimulation to the same site does not lead to the same emotions every time. A person may have the exact same physiological response to a stimulus, yet experience an entirely different emotion.

Factors such as the individual's existing mental state, cues in the environment, and the reactions of other people can all play a role in the resulting emotional response.

Support for the James-Lange Theory

While it seems as if the James-Lange theory should be nothing more than something you might study for its historical significance, it maintains its relevance today because researchers continue to find evidence that supports at least some parts of James's and Lange's original ideas.

The introduction of new technology allowed psychology to get a better understanding of how the brain and body respond during an emotional reaction.

One classic study published in 1990 provided some support for the James-Lange theory, finding that when people were asked to make facial expressions for different emotions, they also displayed slight differences in their psychological reactions such as heart rate and skin temperature.

Some other evidence in support of the theory includes brain scan studies that have revealed that basic emotions elicit distinct patterns of activity in neural networks in the brain.

Studies also suggest that the perception of internal physical states plays a role in how people experience emotions. One study, for example, found that participants who were more sensitive to their body's physical signals also experienced more negative emotions such as anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

Emotions make up such a huge part of our lives so it is not surprising that researchers have devoted so much effort toward understanding the how and why behind our emotional responses. The James-Lange theory of emotion represents just one of the earliest theories.

While the theories have been criticized and altered considerably over the years, James's and Lange's ideas continue to exert an influence today. The theory has been modified over time and competing theories of emotion such as the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion and Schacter's two-factor theory of emotion have also been introduced.

Today, many researchers would instead suggest that rather than our emotions being the result of physical reactions as James and Lange suggested, our emotional experiences are instead modified by both physiological reactions along with other information.

8 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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  3. Lindquist KA, Wager TD, Kober H, Bliss-moreau E, Barrett LF. The brain basis of emotion: a meta-analytic review. Behav Brain Sci. 2012;35(3):121-43. doi:10.1017/S0140525X11000446

  4. Cannon WB. The James-Lange theory of emotions: a critical examination and an alternative theoryThe American Journal of Psychology. 1927;39:106–124. doi:10.2307/1415404

  5. Cannon-Bard theory. APA Dictionary of Psychology.

  6. Cisler JM, Olatunji BO. Emotion regulation and anxiety disorders. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2012;14(3):182-7. doi:10.1007/s11920-012-0262-2

  7. Söderkvist S, Ohlén K, Dimberg U. How the Experience of Emotion is Modulated by Facial Feedback. J Nonverbal Behav. 2018;42(1):129-151. doi:10.1007/s10919-017-0264-1

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Additional Reading
  • Goldstein S. Encyclopedia Of Child Behavior And Development. Berlin: Springer US; 2012.

  • Hockenbury, DH & Hockenbury, SE. Discovering Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers; 2011.

  • Pastorino, EE & Doyle-Portillo, SM. What Is Psychology? Essentials. Belmont, CA: Wadworth Cengage Learning; 2013.

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.