James-Lange Theory of Emotion

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Background Information

William James and Carl Lange independently developed theories of emotion that were later combined and are currently referred to as the James-Lange Theory of Emotion. This theory, developed in the late nineteenth century, is used to describe a phenomenon where the physiological response to a stimulus creates the psychological (emotional) reaction. James and Lange developed this theory of emotion independently, but each shared the same belief about the experience of an emotion. An article by Lang (1994), he describes the connection between the two scientists by saying: “The main idea shared by James and Lange was that emotion did not begin with the conscious experience of an affect. They both proposed that bodily and behavioral responses in emotion were prior events,” (Lang 212). Each scientist looked at their research and theories from a different perspective. James focused on emotion as the subsequent effect of a physiological change, and Lange focused on emotion as the manifestation of the physiological change. However, both scientists arrived at the same conclusion, giving them equal credit in the development of the James-Lange Theory of emotion.

The James-Lange Theory

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion was one of the first theories to attempt to describe the process of emotional reactions. Up until the creation of this theory, relatively few studies and theories existed that related to the science of emotion. The theory states that when a person is presented with an emotional stimulus, he or she feels some sort of physiological arousal, which causes a psychological emotion to be experienced. James stated that emotion was “the feeling of bodily changes which follow the perception of an exciting event,” (Fehr, Stern 415). In other words, an event will trigger some sort of physiological change in a person’s body, and then the person’s brain will interpret these physical changes into the appropriate emotion. For example, when confronted with a frightening situation such as a loud crash, one’s body responds to the sudden noise by triggering the “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline is pumped into the body, the heart rate rises, and muscles tense up. According to the James-Lange theory, the brain will recognize these physiological changes as ones that happen in response to a frightening event, and it will then activate the “frightened” emotion in the person (Fehr, Stern 417).

Experimental Evidence

Experimental evidence to support the James-Lange theory was hard to come by, especially during the time period when the theory was developed because there was limited information about the actual chemicals and signals that created a physical response to an external stimulus. However, James offered a piece of evidence that he used to support his theory: he stated that if an emotionless person were used as a subject, it would be possible to use this person’s feedback during an experimental situation to determine whether or not an emotion happens immediately after a stimulus is introduced and then induces a physical reaction. James and Lange would argue against this sequence of events. In James’ theory, he stated that “emotion-inspiring objects” will cause one to feel physical changes and emotional effects, unless that person is “absolutely anesthetic inside and out” (Fehr, Stern 418). James believed that this type of person could respond to a stimulus without feeling the accompanying emotion, proving that emotions do not precede the physical reaction, and emotions do not cause people to physically react.


One of James and Lange’s most serious critics was Cannon (1987), who later developed his own theory of emotion. In his critique: “The James-Lange Theory of Emotions: A Critical Examination and an Alternative Theory,” Cannon first describes the James-Lange theory as the change from “‘object-simply-apprehended’ to the ‘object-emotionally-felt,’” (Cannon 571). However, Cannon presents five reasons why he rejects the James-Lange theory, most of which are based on the connection between the viscera (internal structures), the central nervous system, and the perception of emotions. The first reason for rejection is because when experiments were conducted that severed the connection between the nervous system and the viscera, emotions were still experienced. Secondly, similar visceral changes were noted in different emotional situations, ranging from non-emotional to highly emotional. Thirdly, visceral changes are unspecific and insensitive. Cannon says that “normally, the visceral processes are extraordinarily undemonstrative,” (Cannon 573). A fourth reason that Cannon gives is that the visceral changes noted when one is presented with an external stimulus are slower than the emotional reaction. Fifthly, artificial visceral stimulation, such as with a shot of adrenalin, does not produce strong emotions (Cannon 577). These five examples of why the James-Lange theory does not always hold were tested extensively by Cannon, and many other researchers after him. In modern times, the commonly held position is that Cannon’s evidence and research outweighs the James-Lange theory in reliability.


Baumeister, Roy F., and Brad J. Bushman. Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2007.

Cannon, Walter B. "The James-Lange Theory of Emotions: A Critical Examination and an Alternative Theory." The American Journal of Psychology 100 (1987): 567-86.

Fehr, Fred S., and John A. Stern. "Peripheral Psychological Variables and Emotion: The James-Lange Theory Revisited." Psychological Bulletin 74 (1970): 411-24.

Lang, Peter J. "The Varieties of Emotional Experience: A Meditation on James-Lange Theory." Psychological Review 101 (1994): 211-21.

Powerpoint presentation for James-Lange theory of emotion:[1]

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