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The Four Theories of Emotion - What, Why & How?

Updated on April 11, 2011

Psychologists have proposed a number of theories about the origins and function of emotions. The theorists behind the dissenting views do agree on one thing, however: emotion has a biological basis. This is evidenced by the fact that the amygdala (part of the limbic system of the brain), which plays a large role in emotion, is activated before any direct involvement of the cerebral cortex (where memory, awareness, and conscious "thinking" take place).

In the history of emotion theory, four major explanations for the complex mental and physical experiences that we call "feelings" have been put forward. They are: the James-Lange theory in the 1920s, the Cannon-Bard theory in the 1930s, the Schacter-Singer theory in the 1960s, and most recently the Lazarus theory, developed in the 1980s and ‘90's.

The James-Lange Theory

The James-Lange theory proposes that an event or stimulus causes a physiological arousal without any interpretation or conscious thought, and you experience the resulting emotion only after you interpret the physical response.


You're late leaving work, and as you head across the parking lot to your car, you hear footsteps behind you in the dark. Your heart pounds and your hands start to shake. You interpret these physical responses as fear.

The Cannon-Bard Theory

The Cannon-Bard theory, on the other hand, suggests that the given stimulus evokes both a physiological and an emotional response simultaneously, and that neither one causes the other.


You're home alone and hear creaking in the hallway outside your room. You begin to tremble and sweat, and you feel afraid.

The Schacter-Singer Theory

The Schachter-Singer theory takes a more cognitive approach to the issue. Schacter and Singer believe that an event causes physiological arousal, but that you must then identify a reason for the arousal before you label the emotion.


You're taking the last bus of the night, and you're the only passenger. A single man gets on and sits in the row behind you. When your stop comes around, he also gets off the bus. He's walking behind you. You feel tingles down your spine with a rush of adrenaline. You know that there have been several muggings in your city over the past few weeks, so you feel afraid.

The Lazarus Theory

The Lazarus theory builds on the Schacter-Singer theory, taking it to another level. It proposes that when an event occurs, a cognitive appraisal is made (either consciously or subconsciously), and based on the result of that appraisal, an emotion and physiological response follow.


You're buying a few last-minute items at the gas station, when two young men in hooded sweatshirts enter the store in a hurry, with their hands in their jacket pockets. You think perhaps they're here to rob the place, so you get scared, and your feel like you might throw up.

While each of these theories is based in research, there is no absolute proof as yet how emotions arise in our bodies and minds, or what determines our own individual experiences of them. What we do know is that feelings are a powerful force to be reckoned with, and should never be belittled.


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    • mydubstepstudio profile image

      Paul Perry 4 years ago from Los Angeles

      One thing is for sure, we feel emotion and it is a huge part of our lives. IT colors everything we do and think. Thanks for this great hub very interesting and informative!

    • profile image

      Mat 4 years ago

      Agreed with Grafito... what's yours source?

    • profile image

      srilanka 5 years ago

      very good information

    • Nancy Owens profile image

      Nancy Owens 6 years ago from USA

      Thank you for the information. I enjoy learning about the mind/body connections. Our emotions play a big role in this area

    • profile image

      popoola oyewole mathew psychology student Ekiti state university (ado ekiti.) 6 years ago

      interesting, compresed but educative and comprehensive article.

    • profile image

      Fagbamila Abidemi Nathaniel 6 years ago

      A good job well done by the compiler but you can do better if u give examples and give individual process of each of the theory but for this thank you...

    • profile image

      laraib 6 years ago

      wonderful effort

    • profile image

      malika 6 years ago

      its very interesting

    • profile image

      zelda 6 years ago

      this is amazing

    • profile image



    • profile image

      alvin 6 years ago

      thank you for giving us the definition of this theories...

      i really appreciate your effort..

    • profile image

      diana 6 years ago

      its good to know these theories

    • profile image

      Grafito 6 years ago

      Just a quick question...

      You mentioned that the amygdala kicks in before the cortex, and that is the reason why most theorists agree on a biological basis. However the canon-bard and lazarus theories don't fit this at all.

      could you possibly give me a reference for the information you have in the opening paragraph?

    • Adam9000 profile image

      Adam9000 7 years ago

      Wow this is really interesting.

    • profile image

      smitha 7 years ago

      Excellent explanation,especially for budding psychologists

    • profile image

      kim 8 years ago

      Very well presented and organized. I like how you briefly and clearly explained the theory, then provided examples of each theory.

    • Sage Williams profile image

      Sage Williams 8 years ago

      Dynamic Hub, very informative and well written. Very interesting love your examples. The examples really helped to simplify the terms and made it easier to understand.

      Great Job!


    • profile image

      Ariel 8 years ago

      this is a great article an it really helped me write my paper. THANK YOU!

    • pam4187 profile image

      pam4187 8 years ago from Sussex County, NJ

      Very interesting!

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 8 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      I'm glad that I popped in to the 'emotions' group, finding this Hub. Excellent assessment of these theories, Maggie; my sense is that the Lazarus typology fits least for me.

    • profile image

      wendy lou 8 years ago


    • yogeshsingh profile image

      yogeshsingh 9 years ago from Delhi

      Thanks Maddie. It is very helpful.

    • DNKStore profile image

      DNKStore 9 years ago from Mississippi USA

      My personal experience would suggest that emotions arise based on the value assigned to certain 'triggers', which are of course, based on personal experiences, and what those experiences meant to us.

      That would fit into the Lazarus theory.

      Thanks for a great Hub!

    • Marcus Freudenman profile image

      Marcus Freudenman 10 years ago from Sunshine Coast Australia

      Very well presented. I've been pondering about emotions for a long time and appreciate your efforts.



    • Kylyssa Shay profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 10 years ago

      Outstanding article! I love the way you condense the essence of each theory into perfect bite-sized pieces.

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      Small Business 10 years ago

      Very good information. Where does intuition play in all of this.

    • barryrutherford profile image

      Barry Rutherford 10 years ago from Queensland Australia

      another great blog on subjects i love..