Course Hero Logo


Theories of Emotion

Emotions are influenced by events, thoughts about those events, and physical arousal. Arousal helps determine the intensity of emotions.

Although emotions are often triggered by external events, not everyone reacts to the same event with the same set of emotions. One person might respond to classical music with boredom, and another might be moved to experience joy or sadness. A person's emotional state involves a combination of physiological arousal and psychological interpretation.

Emotions are tied to physical changes in the body. Anxiety may involve having a dry mouth, sweating, feeling cold, and feeling butterflies in the stomach. Anger may involve a clenched jaw, a pounding heart, muscle tension, and feeling hot. The physiological arousal and bodily reactions linked to feelings are embodied emotion. Physiological arousal helps determine the intensity of emotions. Stronger physical reactions are linked to stronger emotions and can make the difference between feeling mildly irritated versus enraged. This may explain why aggressive behavior increases when people are too hot or uncomfortable. Rather than recognizing their irritation and discomfort as having separate cause, people may react to minor problems with intense anger.

Interpretation of physical sensations also matters. People's interpretations are informed by their experiences, backgrounds, and cultures. Therefore, people may have different emotional experiences even when their circumstances are similar. For example, many people about to ride a roller coaster will have a pounding heart. Some will perceive their arousal as a pleasurable part of an exciting ride. Others will see their pounding heart as an uncomfortable reminder that they are in danger. Those in the first group are likely to enjoy the ride. Those in the second group will feel anxious.

Different theories of emotion assign different levels of importance to the physical and cognitive elements of emotion. The James-Lange theory, proposed independently by American psychologist William James and Danish physiologist Carl Lange, suggests that emotions stem from physiological arousal. A person only experiences an emotion after such arousal has taken place. Different arousal patterns are associated with different feelings; the body knows which patterns indicate happiness, sadness, and so on. For instance, if a poisonous snake were nearby, the sympathetic nervous system would activate the fight-or-flight response to manage the threat. This physiological response causes a sharp increase in heart rate and respiration. According to the James-Lange theory of emotion, this physical response would then lead to the emotion of fear.

The Cannon-Bard theory, proposed by American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon and his doctoral student Philip Bard, grew from the idea that physiological arousal does not vary enough to explain the many types of emotions people experience. The Cannon-Bard theory distinguishes physiological arousal and emotional experience as two separate yet simultaneous occurrences. This means that when a growling dog is nearby, a person feels fear at the same time as the physical arousal from the fight-or-flight response.

The Schachter-Singer two-factor theory, developed by American psychologists Stanley Schachter and Jerome E. Singer, suggests that both physiological and cognitive factors contribute to emotions. The theory states that arousal is interpreted in context to produce an emotional experience. Considering the dog again, the two-factor theory still says the dog activates the sympathetic nervous system. The theory suggests this activation is cognitively labeled as fear because of the context, which is vicious dog. This causes the overall emotional experience to be one of fear. However, if a person were to experience a pounding heart in the context of a first date, they might interpret it as infatuation or sexual attraction.

Theories of Emotion

The James-Lange theory suggests emotions arise as a result of physical responses to experiences. The Cannon-Bard theory suggests the opposite, that emotions trigger physical responses. The Schachter-Singer two-factor theory suggests that physical arousal and interpretations of that arousal interact to produce emotions.

Nonverbal Expression of Emotion

Emotions are expressed nonverbally through body movements, physiological arousal, and facial expressions.

Emotions are conveyed nonverbally through physical arousal, body posture and movements, and facial expressions. Body language is nonverbal communication expressed consciously or unconsciously through gestures, postures, and movements. A facial expression is a motion or position of the facial muscles that conveys emotion. Most people are highly sensitive to the emotional messages communicated through body language and facial expressions. Tone of voice, volume, and rate of speech also convey emotions.

Often, people experience emotions they do not want to reveal to others. People often attempt to hide emotions such as embarrassment, anger, fear, sadness, jealousy, and contempt. Most people cannot fully suppress nonverbal signs of emotion. Nonverbal leakage involves revealing an emotional state through body language or facial expressions despite a desire to conceal the emotion. For example, a person who discovers a coworker got the promotion they'd hoped to get may show a flash of sadness or jealousy while offering congratulations.

Even when people can control the outward expression of their emotions, few people can control their physiological response. For example, most people feel anxious when they lie. This leads to increased heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and sweating. A polygraph, or lie detector, measures these physical markers as people answer questions. A polygraph session begins by having people answer simple questions with known answers, such as their name and occupation. In theory, an increase in physical signs of anxiety in response to other questions would indicate that a person is lying. However, this method is unreliable. Honest people may be anxious for reasons unrelated to deception. People who do not feel shame or guilt about lying can lie without changes in physical arousal. There are no definitive physical markers for deception. Therefore, polygraph results are typically not admissible in criminal courts.

Universal and Cultural Displays of Emotion

Culture shapes rules for displaying emotions. However, happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, disgust, contempt, and anger are expressed with similar facial expressions around the world.

Culture influences how people display emotion. Social expectations for emotional displays are complex. Rules for expressing sadness vary by age, sex, culture, and setting. In America, young children can often cry in public without facing stigma, whereas young men are typically expected to avoid open displays of sadness.

A display rule is a standard way of expressing emotions within a group or culture. The display rules of a culture set the guidelines for the types and frequencies of emotions considered acceptable to display. Display rules are learned during childhood by observing others. They teach individuals when it is appropriate to amplify, neutralize, or mask emotional displays. For example, research has shown that Americans express negative emotions both alone and in groups. In contrast, Japanese people are more likely to express negative emotions when alone but conceal them with a smile in group settings. Japan's culture emphasizes social cohesion and strives for group harmony which can be disrupted by open displays of negativity.

Despite cultural differences in display rules, facial expressions linked to basic emotions are similar around the world. These universal emotions are a set of emotions recognized worldwide: happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, disgust, contempt, and anger. Each of these emotions involves distinct, easily recognizable facial expressions. For example, surprise involves an open mouth, wide eyes, and raised eyebrows. Contempt involves a wrinkled nose and pursed lips.

The Seven Universal Facial Expressions of Emotion

The facial expressions used to convey happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, disgust, contempt, and anger are similar across developmental periods and cultures. They even occur in blind people who have never witnessed these expressions, leading psychologists to call them universal facial expressions.
When people are happy, they often smile. Most people assume that emotions drive facial expressions. However, the facial feedback hypothesis suggests this also works the other way around; facial expressions can influence emotions and change moods. Some studies have shown that when people hold a pen between their teeth in a way that produces a smile, they rate cartoons as funnier. Inability to frown may also boost mood. Recently, researchers studied the effects of cosmetic Botox injections that reduce wrinkles by paralyzing facial muscles. This procedure limits a person's ability to frown. People who receive Botox injections report less depression after the procedure. However, not all studies testing the facial feedback hypothesis have found strong support. Seventeen labs coordinated experiments to try to replicate results of the initial facial feedback study from 1988. The corresponding 2016 report revealed none of the labs had been able to replicate the original findings.


Humans have a limited ability to predict what will make them happy and tend to believe moods will last longer than they actually do.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of the biological, social, and cultural factors that boost happiness and make life most enjoyable, worthwhile, and fulfilling. This branch of psychology examines the biological, social, and cultural factors that boost happiness.

People often do a poor job of predicting what will make them happier. In the United States, people often believe that having more money, getting a promotion, or losing weight will make them happy. However, when people have enough money to meet basic needs and buy a few luxuries, wealth is not a strong predictor of happiness. A 2018 study from Purdue University echoed research from 2010 that happiness related to income fails to increase substantially once people earn approximately $75,000 annually. Research has shown that people who value money and material possessions highly tend to be less happy than those who do not.

Happiness is linked to close relationships, helping others, enjoying one's job, and having a sense of purpose. Learning new things, new experiences, and immersion in activities also predict happiness. Other factors highly correlated with happiness include a sense of belonging, sharing thoughts and beliefs with others, and expressing gratitude or appreciation.

Happiness is also partly maintained through minor self-deception. Positive illusions are unrealistic favorable attitudes people have toward themselves or the people around them. Studies have found that people tend to view themselves as smarter, funnier, more talented, and more successful than they really are, at least in some areas of life. These positive illusions help people maintain self-esteem, feel good, and keep discomfort at bay, at least for a while. Some evidence suggests that people with depression generate more realistic self-assessments than people without depression.

People also do a poor job of predicting future emotions. Whether a situation is positive or negative, humans tend to believe the resulting emotions will last longer than they actually do. They believe that winning the lottery will lead to lasting happiness or that a physical limitation will lead to lasting unhappiness.

In reality, people adjust to new circumstances quickly. Hedonic adaptation is the tendency of people to return quickly to baseline levels of happiness after positive or negative events. A positive event will cause an immediate peak in a person's happiness level, and a negative event will cause an immediate drop. However, these extreme highs and lows only last for a short time. For example, most people will feel sad shortly after a friend moves across the country. However, within a few months, they will adapt and feel just as happy as they did before.

Effect of External Events on Happiness over Time

Happiness levels change in the immediate aftermath of positive and negative events. However, these changes are temporary. People's moods tend to level off and return to baseline levels after a short period of time.