Medicine & USMLE

James-Lange Theory of Emotion

  1. Schachter-Singer (Two Factor) Theory of Emotion
  2. James-Lange Theory of Emotion
  3. Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion


The James-Lange Theory of Emotion is one of the oldest theories of emotion; it was developed independently by William James and Carl Lange, hence why it is called the James-Lange theory. Simply put, the James-Lange Theory of Emotion states that physiological arousal creates the experience of emotion. Our environment--in other words, a stimulus--first causes physiological arousal, and this physiological arousal then directly produces emotion. Since physiological arousal is the only factor directly tied to emotion, physiological arousal and emotion are essentially the same thing.

Key Points

  • James-Lange Theory of Emotion
    • Emotion is solely produced by physiological arousal
      • Therefore, physiological arousal = emotion
    • Environmental stimuli (an event) creates physiological arousal, which activates nervous system pathways. The body's interpretation of this electrical activity is emotion.
      • Identical physiological responses should lead to identical emotions
    • Drugs like epinephrine artificially produce physiological responses, and may create feelings of emotion.
      • There is no cognitive interpretation nor personal factors--the physiological response alone creates the emotion.
    • Contrast vs. Schachter-Singer (Two Factor) Theory of Emotion and Cannon-Bard (Thalamic) Theory of Emotion


For argument’s sake, let’s say we are able to take the heart out of the body and squeeze it by hand. The faster I squeeze it, the more emotion I should produce, right? Now in the real world, we obviously won’t be taking anyone’s heart out, squeezing it, and seeing if emotion produced. But there are other ways we can artificially increase heart rate or physiological arousal. Think about drugs like epinephrine, which artificially increase the heart rate. If I inject someone with epinephrine, the James-Lange theory suggests that emotion will automatically be produced. Remember, the physiological response literally produces emotion.

Let's consider another example. Imagine you open your front door, and there in front of you is a scary, growling dog. Your heart immediately starts pounding, which in this case is your physiological response. Again, your increased heart rate DIRECTLY PRODUCES the emotion of fear. Because your heart rate went up, fear was automatically produced. The heart rate directly created fear, so your physiological arousal WAS your emotion.