James Lange Theory of Emotion

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Do we feel first and then think or do we think first and then feel? Thinking and feeling interact, creating our motivational system—the foundation of action. Modern science now capable of mapping synaptic firing adds exciting new input into this age-old debate. William James and Carl Lange provided an early theory explaining some of the complexities of emotions and behavior. The James Lange theory of emotion proposed that behavior is the foundation of emotion. We unconsciously perform a behavior, motivated by a specific physiological arousal and the following cognitive recognition of the behavior leads to the forming emotion. We run from the bear first, then experience fear because we are running.

In the late 1800’s, American psychologist William James theorized we are afraid because we are running from the bear rather than running from the bear because we are afraid. While this theory of the arousal- behavior-cognition continuum is over simplified, it provides fodder for thought, challenging the generally accepted idea that we feel, think, then determine how to act. For James, he saw feeling as “perceptions of physiological body changes in the autonomic, hormonal, and motor systems.” We experience emotion “once we become aware of the physiological bodily changes” (2008).

​James wrote that, “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be” (1884/2008). James-Lange theory of emotion was welcomed into the discussions by many, vehemently opposed by others. Peter Lange wrote, “variously interpreted and elaborated by others, it had been alternatively the guiding light—or a lightening rod for criticism—for generations of emotion researchers” (1994).

Key Definition:

James Lange Theory of Emotion theorizes that physical changes and behavioral reactions occur in the body occur without cognition. Following the feelings affects and behavioral reaction, cognitions interpret the meaning, creating the emotion.

The outward appearance of a unified mind is deceptive. Consciousness filters, combines and adjusts many sources of information before our mind creates a unified and cohesive story. This is a complex process that creates order from a confusing world. We achieve a sense of mastery over our experience by envisioning a process of compiling information from external triggers, logical processing, and rational emotional reaction.

​​Cognition First Theories

​Prior to the James-Lange Theory of emotion, people generally acceptance that we analyze experience first and then respond with emotion. James-Lange theory suggests we physically run from the bear (heart racing, muscles tighten) and this physiological reaction to the ferocious bear sparks the subjective emotion of fear. Cognitive first theories suggest we see the bear, evaluate the danger, and then feel fear. James believed feelings required explanation, not explanation created the feeling (1994).

“While it might seem like a small distinction in the sequence of events, the theory had an important impact on psychology and the understanding of emotions.” 

Our errant belief that thought proceeds action incites harsh judgments, critically condemning uncouth behavior. We imply illogical behavior stems from faulty thinking.  We often respond logically; running from the bear is logical; but many actions aren’t logical.

Humans wouldn’t survive without many logical survival-oriented responses; but some of our adopted strategies are maladaptive, not serving long-term goals. We know the consequence, but still destructively act.

Lisa Feldman Barrett Ph.D., a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, explains that the brain is a predicting organ, “it launches your next set of actions based on your past experience and current situation, and it does so outside of your awareness. In other words, your actions are under the control of your memory and your environment” (Barrett, 2021). Barrett, a modern leading researcher in emotion and brain interaction, explains part of a process that in many ways supports the James-Lang theory and explains some of the standing objections.

“​All of us are constantly creating memories, but what makes them core or significant are the emotions that we attach to these past events, experiences, and relationships.”

A Few Flaws in the James-Lange Theory of Emotion

William James and Carl Lange provided influential fodder for future research on emotion. Some of their findings hold true. A more recent study found that smiling ignited feelings of joy. Other studies create doubt to the validity of the James Lange theory.

Neuroscientists and experimental physiologists discovered that both animals and humans who had experienced major sensory losses were still capable of experiencing emotions. This strongly opposes the James-Lange theory.

Learned Physiological Reactions

An interesting consideration is the elements involved creating the physiological response. The over simplified example of running from a bear jumps over some significant factors. Why, I ponder, does the body physiologically react to the bear? Some cognition must occur, whether conscious or not. The bear can create a physiological stir without showing aggression.

Somewhere in the dark hallways of our mind, we know the bear is capable of a ferocious attack. The cute bear cub heightens our arousal, knowing a protective mother is probably near by.

Acting Against Our Best Interest

We sometimes are illogical, at least measured by actions measured against long-term objectives. Basically, we occasionally behave in ways that have no obvious survival benefits. We act stupid and then use mental gyrations to justify the behavior. But possibly other hidden survival-oriented motivations push these nonsensical behaviors. In comparing these instances to the James Lange theory of emotion, we must stretch a bit. Certainly, behaviors are learned. And when learning is involved there are errors. For this reason, we can act wrong for the situation, and still draw an emotion from the behavior.

For example, a dog may have bitten our hand when we were young, now we fear all dogs, whether the fear is legitimate or not. A friendly dog walks by, our heart hastens, blood pressure rises, and we leap away. Our cognitions follow: racing heart, light head, jumping away, dog walking by. “I am afraid.”

Our thoughts create order—even explaining cockeyed action. The environment constantly demands action, forcing the survivor to respond before sufficient facts are gathered. Our mind bridges the gaps in knowledge and responds to threats. When a partner triggers strong emotion, our heart pounds, breathing deepens, and blood pressure rises; our body prepares to meet the threat.

​Our mind demands a reason for felt biological reactions. When in a heightened emotional state, our thoughts scramble to clarify the reason. Without an easily definable reason, we scan the environment, assess what is seen, heard and felt and construct a meaning.

​Survival demands realistic interpretations. Are we in danger? We seek safety, security and survival. We survive by responding appropriately to danger and opportunity.

Irrational Emotions and James Lange Theory of Emotion

But sometimes motivations are not exactly clear. Environments fail to provide single identified messages. A flurry of signals jolts our system, igniting fears, tickling joys, and building or dismantling egos. Our histories of pain and pleasure blending with inherited dispositions create a road map for reaction. The environment trigger the behavior in a complex whirlwind of interaction between the being and the environment. Perhaps, portions of this massive of exchange of data supports for James and Lange’s theory of emotion.

Emotions in Nature

Many organisms respond to outside events without the capability of logical thought. An event simply triggers a survival-oriented response. A rustle in the grass and the flock of birds fly away. Our consciousness doesn’t eliminate this survival mechanism. Our consciousness adds to biological pasts without replacing proven functions already established. Sometimes thought improves survival and other times corrupts.

Biological reactions (the emotions), founded on faulty assessments of the past, may motivate destructive behaviors in the present. We sometimes have faulty impulses—motivations to act against our best interest. To impede these behavioral glitches, when given time, we must examine rather than justify.

​A partner’s anger may spark defensiveness but when examined closer, we may see the legitimacy to their anger; but when mindful examinations are skipped, our automatic protective responses agitate rather than reconcile, driving us from our goal, destroying intimacy. Irrational responses to quell the anxieties alienates us from our lover. Instead of accepting the  foolishness, we soothe our shame and assuage the guilt by justifying our relationship-destroying actions.

“​At the heart of every event or situation is an emotion.”

Lori Jackson and Steve Peck   | Smart Brief

Emotions Provide Information

While James Lange theory of emotion focuses on behaviors providing information for the cognitive task of forming emotions, sometimes emotions provide valuable information for enacting a behavior. We must gracefully accept emotional responses but understand their fallibility. A child raised in emotional impoverishment experiences greater sensitivity to social threats. Their stumped emotional growth may motivate overreaction to mundane events. A simple disagreement may arouse intense painful feelings. Past hurts live in cellular memory, jumping to life, when threats demand protective action. 

​Emotions may be a relic from memorable pasts, where hurt overwhelmed and forced creative adaptation to thoughts to make meaning of the chaos. The adaptive meanings become the foundation for present emotional interpretations; our intense responses to perceived abandonments interfere with present connections and partners become unlucky recipients of undeserved fearful reactions. Most social interactions are vague.

The motivations behind actions and words hide in the darkness of the complexity. We seldom accurately identify the complexity behind our own motivations; and usually grossly misinterpret the motivations of others—personal biases influence our judgments. The biases write the explaining story. Our stories (the interpretations) typically confirm the biases. We give attention to facts that support a bias rather than one’s that confuse predetermined explanation. In psychology we call this selective information processing. If I believe myself to be victim, then my narrative identity gives attention to data in the environment that supports my proclaimed victimhood.

We must contend with critical emotional moments with sureness, but habitually costly choices destroy, setting us on a path to failure. We must pause, when feasible, and redirect action instead of reacting and justifying. These critical moments of interaction, furled with emotion, destroy relationships.

​Strong Emotions Interfere with Goals

Strong emotions invade weighty conversations without warning—the heart starts pounding and perspectives narrow; the very moments we need the clearest thoughts. These emotional explosions seldom generate the desired outcomes. We act badly, speak harshly, and then form a coherent story that excuses damaging behaviors. The stories affix derogatory labels to our partner justifying our emotional immaturity; the vilifying label solidifies our justifications—a destructive cycle, difficult to break. Unhealthy reactions whittle away the foundation of love, security and attraction.

Successful relationships must artfully navigate destructive emotions, stirring clear of the dark alleys of justifications. We can avoid dangerous dead-end negotiations by mindfully checking faulty interpretations for self-protecting biases. However, we employ defense mechanisms—all of us. Even if we try, we can’t prevent the brain from normal functions; but we can recognize the limitations.

A clearer understanding of ego-protecting games exposes the dangerous justifications. And when recognized they can be addressed, combated and improved. Our adaptations to the pains of life can mature, providing better approaches and improved consequences.

A Few Final Words on James Lange Theory of Emotion

The chicken hatches from the egg; the egg is laid by the chicken. Everything is connected in the complexity of this magnificent life. The experience spurs emotion and emotions motivate action, and the thoughts create coherency. Each playing an intricate part of survival, intertwining and spilling over into the other. James Lange theory of emotion focuses attention on a single aspect of this complex web of behavior, feeling affects, and cognitive creation of emotion. Their theory was revolutionary and controversial in world where puritan values and free agency reigned supreme. Action without premeditative thought and value directed control critically opposed many core beliefs of the time.

In conclusion, most the psychology community appreciates William James contributions to emotions. Feeling affect, behavior, and emotions unquestionably are the fundamental foundation of all psychological concepts. When we create a healthy balance between the rational and emotional mind (wise mind), we access rich sources of information that can propel us towards a better life.

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Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2021). Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. ‎Mariner Books.

James, William (1884/2008) What is an Emotion?  Wilder Publications

Lang, Peter (1994). The Varieties of Emotional Experience: A Meditation on James–Lange Theory. Psychological Review, 101(2), 211-221.

Northoff, Georg. (2008). Are our emotional feelings relational? A neurophilosophical investigation of the James–Lange theory. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 7(4), 501-527.

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