James-Lange Theory of Emotion

The James-Lange theory of emotion, developed in the late 19th century by American psychologist William James and Danish psychologist Carl Lange, is based on the principle that emotion is a result of physical reactions to a stimulus; the body reaction to a stimulus precedes the feeling aspect (subjective experience) of the emotion.

Specifically, James and Lange suggested that the perception of a stimulus produces a specific body reaction and that the body reaction produces the emotional feeling.

This sequence of emotional experience contradicts the common notion that emotion precedes the bodily reaction to a stimulus. In his article, James stated that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble” (Lange & James, 1922, p.13).

A major point of this theory is that it does not assume any intervening cognition of emotion that comes after the physiological arousal. The arousal itself is considered the emotional feeling. An additional significant aspect of this theory is that different emotions might be associated with different physiological responses, although James and Lange did not specifically address this issue (Russell, 2003).

James and Lange held the idea that physiological activity is necessary for the production of emotional experience. In their view, the emotion-provoking object itself is not strong enough to produce emotional experience.

As some researchers have pointed out, some of Jame’s statements were lacking in a clarity, leading to some confusion about the theory. For instance, James said that when you see a bear, you first run away then feel fear, rather than feeling fear then running away (as common sense would suggest).

But others have said that running away from a bear is not automatic: we would not run away from a bear in a zoo or a bear that we saw sleeping in the woods. As they say, some interpretation, or appraisal, of the situation is necessary for you to run. For example, Kalat and Shiota (2007) restate and clarify the James-Lange theory as shown in Table X-1.

Table X-1 James-Lange Theory of Emotion
EventAppraisal of eventAction (both behavioral
and physiological responses)
Emotional feeling
(this is threatening)(running and stress reaction)(fear)

The James-Lange theory has had a tremendous impact on the development of emotion theory, for example, by inspiring research on whether differential physiological responses occur for the various emotions.

However, the James-Lange theory has been heavily criticized. In particular, the theory was scientifically attacked by Walter Cannon, an American physiologist in the late 1920s. One criticism he made was that many of the necessary physiological responses that James and Lange refer or allude to, in particular, the hormonal action of the autonomic nervous system, are too slow to cause the emotional feeling.

Another critique was that one would expect individuals with spinal cord injuries to experience relatively numbed emotions (since nervous system damage would mean a reduced physiological reaction to a stimulus), but research has produced mixed findings, with some results suggesting less intense emotional experience among spinal cord injury patients (e.g., Mack, Birbaumer, Kaps, & Kaiser, 2005) and other results indicating normal emotional experience (e.g., Cobos, Sanchez, Perez & Vila, 2004).

  1. James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology (2 vols.). New York: Henry Holt.
  2. Lange, C.G., & James, W. (1962). The emotions. New York: Hafner.
  3. Russell, J.A. (2003). Core affect and the psychological construction of emotion. Psychological Review, 110, 145 – 172.