The James-Lange Theory

(Proposed by William James in 1884 and supported by C. G. Lange)


The James-Lange theory states that an emotion is actually just the sum of the different physical states or bodily responses that occur when you are experiencing that emotion. For example, fear is no more than clammy hands, an elevated heart rate, heightened sensation etc. James and Lange believe that if you try to look beyond these things to find out what fear really is, there is nothing to find. Each distinct emotion is associated with a distinct set of bodily responses and that’s all there is to it.


However, challengers of this theory have injected subject with adrenaline in an attempt to mimic the bodily state created by fear, surprise or anger. They report that the subjects tended to be aware of their elevated heart rates, to feel “butterflies” and a little clammy but that none actually experienced a real emotion.


Some said they felt “as if” they were angry, but this implies that they can distinguish between really being angry and just simply feeling that way. Similarly riding a particularly scary roller-coaster may be found to duplicate the physical experience of surviving a serious car accident but your emotional reactions to the two are likely to be different: roller coasters are (for the most part) fun whereas car accidents are traumatic. This suggests that there is more to an emotion than simply the physical effects created in your body.


A further counterclaim may, however, point out that there are some people who have in fact enjoyed car accidents that they have found themselves in and there are a considerable number of people who are traumatised by roller coasters – usually those who do not go on them.