Theories of Emotion – MCAT Psychology | MedSchoolCoach

Theories of Emotion

MCAT Psychology - Chapter 3 - Section 1.4 - Emotions, Stress, and Motivation - Emotion
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Sample MCAT Question - Theories of Emotion

The James-Lange theory of emotion presents the following in what order?

 I. Emotion 

II. Stimulus 

III. Physical Reaction

a) I, II, III

b) III, II, I

c) II, III, I

d) II, I, III

C is correct. The James-Lange theory of emotion posits that a stimulus produces a physical reaction , which in turn triggers an emotion. Answer choices A, B, and D are incorrect because they present the choices in an order that is inconsistent with the James-Lange theory of emotion.

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Theories of Emotion for the MCAT - Introduction

Emotions are a fundamental aspect of human experience, influencing how we perceive and respond to the world around us. Over the years, psychologists have proposed various theories to explain how emotions arise and operate within the human mind. The MCAT expects you to know three main types: the James-Lange theory, the Cannon-Bard theory, and the Schachter-Singer two-factor theory. Each theory offers a unique perspective on the nature and function of emotions, providing valuable insights into this complex and multifaceted aspect of human behavior. We will explore these three theories of emotion in detail.

James-Lange Theory of Emotion

The James-Lange theory of emotion states that for emotion to occur, an environmental stimulus will produce a physical change, which produces an emotion. It is important to note that, unlike other theories of emotion, here the physical reaction change is thought to directly produce the emotion. For example, if you see a bear (stimulus), the sight of the bear will cause your heart rate to increase (physical reaction) which will cause you to feel fear (emotional output). An important consideration of the James-Lange theory is that a specific physical change will produce a specific emotion. For example, in the previous example of seeing a bear, if you were unable to have an increase in heart rate, your body would not be able to produce the emotion of fear.


There are a number of criticisms of the James-Lange theory. One is that the experimental evidence does not support the necessity of physical changes for emotion. To prove this, scientists severed the sensory afferent nerves, which deliver sensory information to the central nervous system, of model organisms and found that they could still express emotion. Second, many emotions are known to involve the same physical changes. For instance, anger and fear are both tied to an increase in heart rate. Third, artificially producing physical changes does not result in emotions. For instance, scientists injected epinephrine into subjects in order to raise their heart rate, but patients did not experience fear

James-Lange theory, a theory of emotion tested on the MCAT, proposes that a physiological reaction precedes emotion
Figure 1. James-Lange Theory of Emotion

Canon-Bard Theory of Emotion

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion was formulated out of experimentally-backed criticism of the James-Lange theory.

The James-Lange theory of emotion hypothesizes that specific physical changes directly cause emotions. However, Cannon and Bard’s experiments indicated that physical changes do not precede an emotional response, but instead happen separately and simultaneously.


Figure 2 shows that the Cannon-Bard theory predicts a stimulus will produce physiological change and emotion simultaneously and separately.


The Cannon-Bard theory is also called the Thalamic Theory of emotion because their experimental results suggested that the thalamus is a key structure in emotion. They proposed that stimuli will activate the thalamus and that thalamic neurons will then fire particular combinations of action potentials to different regions of the brain to produce both physiological changes and emotional responses.

Cannon-Bard theory is a theory of emotion tested on the MCAT, which states that physiological changes and emotional responses happen simultaneously
Figure 2. Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

Schacter-Singer Theory of Emotion

The Schachter-Singer theory of emotion, also called the Two Factor theory of emotion, is a modification of the James-Lange theory. While the James-Lange theory suggests that a physical change directly causes emotion, the Two Factor theory promotes an additional step. This step is that a cognitive appraisal of the physical response our bodies have to certain stimuli is required for an emotion to be produced (Figure 3).


The figure shows us that a stimulus produces a physical change, a person uses environmental cues to cognitively assess the change, and the final product is an emotion. This theory was based on experiments that Schachter and Singer performed in which participants were injected with either epinephrine or a placebo. Some of the participants in both groups were told what the effects of epinephrine are, and others were not told about the effects. After the injection, all the participants interacted with a person who was acting very happy or very angry. Results showed that participants who received an explanation of how epinephrine works were much less emotional. The experimenters concluded that they were able to cognitively assess and understand what was occurring to them and make a conscious choice to control their emotions. From this, Schachter and Singer developed the idea that people use cognitive appraisal of things like environmental cues to explain physical changes, which in turn results in an emotional output.

Schachter-Singer theory, a theory of emotion tested on the MCAT, posits that a cognitive appraisal occurs between the physiological and emotional responses to stimuli
Figure 3. Schacter-Singer Theory of Emotion

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