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James-lange Theory of Emotion and Its Critisism

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It seems fitting that emotion, a complex and subjective experience, defies clear definition centuries after coming into English use (Scherer, 2005). William James and Carl Lange independently developed the theory that somatic arousal foments the experience of emotion – the James-Lange theory (JLT) of emotion (James, 1884; Lange, 1885). The theory is most popularised by a study about how inducing smiles can elicit emotions like happiness (Strack et al., 1988). Passionate critics of the theory disputed the causal relationship between bodily sensations and emotions, only for others to later conclude that it merely lacks the additional step of appraisal in between.

An early critic, William Wundt, posited that emotion was a natural, ingrained, sensory response (James, 1894). The main criticism and ensuing debate came – that one does not necessitate nor precede the other – came from Cannon and Bard, whose competing theory suggests that both emotional and physical responses occur “simultaneously and independent of each other” (W. B. Cannon, 1927). The JLT states that arousal of the viscera instigates emotion. However, others have shown the presence of emotion in the absence of a physical connection – Sherrington’s severing of spinal-brain connections in dogs, Cannon’s similar experiment on cats, and Maccurdy’s observation of patients with “no awareness of their genital organs” experiencing sexual emotions, (W. B. Cannon, 1927; MacCurdy, 1925; Sherrington, 1900). Critically, neither sides’ experiments were robust, since observations do not determine causality, and animal findings may not be generalizable to humans due to their different structures.

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James does not distinguish between changes that produce emotions and unproductive changes – yet not all physiological changes, such as hunger or a headache, are emotions (Stout, 2014). He used actors as proof that artificial physical expression would create the related emotion, but Diderot contradicts this with his own anecdotes of actors performing without feeling associated emotions (Diderot et al., 1830). Stronger evidence can be found in a meta-analysis of 17 studies (Fig 1) investigating and disputing the facial feedback hypothesis (Senden et al., 2016).

Similarly, other arousal-induction experiments disprove the causal effect of physiological induction in people, where such artificial inductions did not directly arouse emotion (Marshall & Zimbardo, 1979; Schachter & Singer, 1962). In fact, this led to the two-factor theory of emotion – emotion is based on both physiological arousal and its cognitive label. People will look for environmental cues to inform the resulting emotion. This showed that James’ theory was not incorrect, merely incomplete and that people are prone to misattribution. Studies manipulating physiology and misdirecting targets of emotion display strong evidence for misattribution of arousal, showing that perception does not merely precede emotion, but mediates and modifies it (Dutton & Aron, 1974; White et al., 1981). If such changes led to emotions, the same sensations should not elicit different emotions across situations and people.

Our appraisal of a situation significantly affects our emotions. Ward showed how emotions are informed by circumstance, not merely objects – a caged bear is fed while a free one is run from (Ward, 1886). McDougall opines further that “our emotional responses are bound up with, and in many cases are immediately determined by, simple perceptions” (McDougall, 2015).

These arguments in totality prove the theory’s inherently unscientific nature, which James recognized with his amendment in the theory – accepting that the perceptible object (stimulating arousal) is influenced by its background (James, 1894).

Physiological arousal, appraisal, and emotions work together to produce an experience that affects an individual. Our bodies, thoughts, and feelings are, after all, parts of a whole. What we do know is that unexplained arousal leads to negative emotions (Maslach, 1979), and since we cannot always remove uncertainty, lowering arousal in non-threatening situations can be beneficial for an individual. In the case of distress or mental illness, somatic modalities to lower arousal have been shown to help (Brom et al., 2017). With neuroscience maturing as a field, we are now able to examine the interrelationships of sensory input, our appraisal, and resulting emotions more accurately and even ask questions like why music makes us emotional (Gingras, Marin, & Fitch, 2014), or why reading a story can make us laugh or cry (Fuster, 2002; Herbert et al., 2011; Kissler et al., 2007). Just as Schachter developed the theory of emotion further and opened a new pathway for exploration, so should we use a lens that critiques objectively, yet stay focused on asking, How can we fill the gaps and arrive at a deeper understanding that helps us all?. 


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