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James-Lange Theory of Emotion


Explanations > Theories > James-Lange Theory of Emotion

Description | ExampleSo What? | See also | References 



We have experiences, and as a result, our autonomic nervous system creates physiological events such as muscular tension, heart rate increases, perspiration, dryness of the mouth, etc. This theory proposes that emotions happen as a result of these, rather than being the cause of them.

The sequence thus is as follows:

Event ==> arousal ==> interpretation ==> emotion

The bodily sensation prepares us for action, as in the Fight-or-Flight reaction. Emotions grab our attention and at least attenuate slower cognitive processing.

This is not a new theory and was proposed in 1884. It combined the ideas of William James and Danish physiologist Carl Lange, who largely independently arrived at the same conclusion. William James described it thus:

"My theory ... 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. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, and angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect ... and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble ... Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry"

Lange particularly added that vasomotor changes are the emotions.

It was largely supplanted by the Cannon-Bard theory, but of late, it has made something of a come-back, although the notion of causality is not as strong and there is ongoing uncertainty as to the chicken-and-egg question of which comes first, physiological and emotional feelings.


I see a bear. My muscles tense, my heart races. I feel afraid.

So What?

Using it

Watch people's physiological signals (facial color, etc.) and deduce what emotions will result.


Notice your own physical feelings and muse about how these lead to emotion. If you could relax deliberately, would you feel better?

See also

Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion, Two-Factor Theory of Emotion, Cognitive Appraisal Theories of Emotion


James (1884), Lange (1887)


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