Comparing the 5 Theories of Emotion

Emotions seem to dominate many aspects of our lives. But what exactly are emotions?

The word first appears in our language in the mid-16th century, adapted from the French word émouvoir, which literally means, “to stir up”. However, one can find precursors to the word emotion dating back to the earliest known recordings of language. When searching for a definition, Hockenbury describes an emotion as “a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and an expressive response.”

Researchers have long studied how and why people experience emotion and a number of theories have been proposed. In order to compare and contrast these theories of emotion, it is helpful to first explain them in terms of the interactions between their components: an emotion-arousing stimulus, physiological arousal, cognitive appraisal, and the subjective experience of emotion.

According to the James-Lange theory, initially proposed by James and around the same time also by Lange, the stimulus leads to the arousal that leads to the emotion. The sound of a gun shot, for example, leads to the physiological responses like rapid heart rate and trembling that lead to the subjective experience of fear. On the other hand, according to the Cannon-Bard theory, proposed first by Cannon and later extended by Bard, the stimulus leads to both the arousal and the emotion. The sound of a gun shot, for example, leads both to the physiological responses like rapid heart rate and trembling and to the subjective experience of fear.

The two most well-known cognitive theories are the two-factor and the cognitive-mediational theories of emotion. According to the two-factor theory, proposed by Schachter and Singer, the stimulus leads to the arousal that is labeled using the cognition that leads to the emotion. The sound of a gunshot, for example, leads to physiological responses like rapid heart rate and trembling that are interpreted as fear by subjective experience.

According to the cognitive-mediational theory, proposed by Lazarus, the stimulus leads to a personal meaning derived from cognition, leading to both arousal and the emotion. The sound of a gunshot, for example, is interpreted as something potentially dangerous and leads to both physiological responses, like a rapid heart rate and trembling, and the subjective experience of fear.

Finally, according to facial feedback theory, emotion is the experience of changes in our facial muscles. In other words, when we smile, we then experience pleasure, or happiness. When we frown, we then experience sadness. It is the changes in our facial muscles that cue our brains and provide the basis of our emotions. Just as there are an unlimited number of muscle configurations in our face, so too are there a seemingly unlimited number of emotions. For example, the sound of a gunshot, causes your eyes to widen and your teeth to clench, and your brain interprets these facial changes as the expression of fear. Therefore, you experience the emotion of fear.

By breaking them down in this way, one can already notice the differences and similarities between the different theories, as one can clearly identify the components that exist in each theory and the order in which they occur. As can be seen from the above, the James-Lange and Cannon-Bard theories are fundamentally similar in that they both involve the same three components, but they are different in how they handle the timing of when arousal and emotion occur. They both differ from the two cognitive theories in that they do not explicitly acknowledge any role of cognition.

Regarding the similarities, the sequence of the three components in both the James-Lange and two-factor theories, as well as in both the Cannon-Bard and cognitive-mediational theories, is the same. The fundamental difference between the two theories comprising each pair is the addition of a cognition component at some point in the sequence.


Hockenbury & Hockenbury (2007). Discovering Psychology: Fourth Edition. New York: Worth Publishers, Inc.

JAMES, W. (1884). II.—WHAT IS AN EMOTION ? Mind, os-IX (34), 188-205 DOI: 10.1093/mind/os-IX.34.188

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Myers, D. G. (2004). Theories of Emotion. Psychology: Seventh Edition, New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Image via Elnur / Shutterstock.

Beppe Micallef-Trigona, MD, MRCPsych, MSc

Dr. Beppe Micallef-Trigona is a Maltese psychiatrist, currently working as a consultant in the United Kingdom. After his MD, he completed postgraduate specialisation in psychiatry and attained his membership with the Royal College of Psychiatrists as well as an MSc in Clinical Health Management at Aston University and a Postgraduate Certificate in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) at Newcastle University. His main areas of interest include neuropsychiatry, the treatment of severe depression and early intervention in psychosis. He is currently involved in non-invasive brain stimulation research, with a particular focus on the therapeutic use of a novel psychiatric treatment called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Follow him on twitter @beppemt or visit his mental health blog
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