Sample page: James-Lange theory

William James (1890), one of the founders of the discipline of psychology, suggested a more counter-intuitive explanation for the sequence involved in an emotional response, known as James-Lange theory. This theory postulates that the physiological response to perceptions is the cause of emotional experiences – often described as suggesting that 'we are afraid because we run'.




Consider panic attacks as an example:


Perceptions (e.g. of large crowds) trigger an overwhelming set of physiological responses (sweating, increased respiratory rate and heart rate, muscle tension, adrenal gland secretion etc.) with a highly unpleasant emotional experience as a result. The individual experiencing this then often actively avoids situations that result in this unpleasant bodily state.


Predictions from James-Lange theory

James-Lange theory makes some interesting and testable predictions.


  • Imagine that we could fully measure all physiological changes that occur in a person’s body. If each emotion corresponds to a distinct pattern of physiological change, we should then be able to tell exactly what emotion a person is experiencing.


  • Also, if emotions are dependent on the body’s physiological state then a brain cut off from the body should be emotionless, i.e. if you disrupt the signals from the body to the brain then it should affect the emotional experience.


Evidence for these predictions is equivocal:


  • Early studies found that experimentally-induced emotional states tended to show undifferentiated sympathetic activation. Cannon (1929) summarised that 'the same visceral changes occur in very different emotional states and in non-emotional states'.


  • Some studies (e.g. Schachter, 1957) have found that although there may be generalised sympathetic activation, some differences in the pattern of visceral response are evident, for example between fear and anger. Levenson (1992) identified specific autonomic nervous system patterns associated with the so called 'basic emotions' (see page 2.2).


  • Bard (1934) appeared to demonstrate that lesions to the spinal cord and sympathetic nervous system in animals did not affect emotional responses; in humans with spinal cord lesions there is contrasting evidence on the impact of damage on emotional experience. 


  • Cannon (1927) also argued that bodily changes do not occur fast enough to account for the rapid changes in emotional states.



What kind of criticisms do you think could be made of James-Lange theory?
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