Theories on emotion

Theories on emotion

A biologist or physician can give us a very complete picture of the human body, and the role each organ plays in ensuring the well-being of the whole. However, given their intangible nature, it is much more difficult to explain the purpose of the emotions, and the full role they play in our existence. It is easy, in other words, to say why we have lungs: they exist in order to transport oxygen in the atmosphere into the blood system. The heart exists in order to pump blood through the blood vessels of the body. We have kidneys to produce and excrete urine. And so on. It is easy to say why these organs are needed by the body, and in extension, it is easy to work out when they are not functioning properly and regulate them.
The purpose of emotions is far less clear, which is the reason why psychology is far more open to debate than medicine, since we do not always agree when the emotions are misfiring and when there are potential problems with them. Part of the problem is that it is far harder to test how our emotions work, since there are disagreements even on the location of their physical source. But there are of course theories on the purpose of emotion, and the role it plays in our existence. Three of the most famous are outlined below.

The James-Lange theory of emotion

William James advanced this theory at the same time (though independently) as Carl Lange. This theory, which was advanced at the end of the 19th century, posits the idea that our nervous system reacts to external situations and stimuli by creating a physical event such as an increase in the rate of the heart beat, blood rising to the surface of the skin, or perspiration. Our brains then sense these reactions, and our emotional response is produced as a result – be it fear, embarrassment, or stress. The example sited by James was that of someone’s reaction when they encounter a bear. The usual thing to do in such circumstances is to run. James argued that as a result of running, we experience fear, rather than the other way around.

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion

In the 1920s, Walter Cannon and Philip Bard put forward an alternative theory, which turned this idea on its head. Instead of emotion being caused by the physical reaction, they argued, emotion was the cause of the physical reactions. To go back to the example of James’ bear, the emotional response to seeing a bear is fear. Fear then causes us to run. This is how we commonly understand how emotions work, and why we have them. It is generally considered a healthy response to run away from bears.

The Two-Factor theory of emotion

The third view of how emotion works was put forward in the 1960s. It was based on an experiment carried out in 1962 by Stanley Schachter (1922-1997) and Jerome Singer, which saw 184 volunteers injected with either a saline solution or adrenaline. These volunteers were told that they were testing a new drug called Superoxin, and were told different things about what the side effects would be. Some were told they would experience increased heat beat and rapid breathing – the normal effects of adrenaline; some that they would feel a mild headache (which does not happen with adrenaline shots); and some that there would be no side-effects at all.
The volunteers were left in a room while the adrenaline kicked in. There, one of the experimenters pretended to be part of the test, and faked either an angry or a happy mood after being injected. The reaction of those waiting with this person was then recorded.
The results showed consistently that those who had been given a saline solution (which produces no effect) or that were incorrectly informed about the side effects of the adrenaline shot copied the reaction of the fake volunteer. Those who had been told of the correct effects of the adrenaline, however, experienced those effects, even when it meant behaving in a completely different way to the fake volunteer.
The conclusion that the researchers arrived at was that for the body to arrive at an emotional state, two factors were necessary (hence the name of the theory). First, a physiological arousal; second, a cognitive label for that physiological arousal. In other words, not only do we have to experience something happening to us, we have to be able to have a name for what that is. This links to Language in how it indicates that our experiences are limited by our ability to describe them.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Theories on emotion (10th May 2013). Last accessed: 22nd January 2017


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