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