Theories of Emotion: Schachter's Two Factor Theory Example

Theories of Emotion: Schachter's Two Factor Theory Example

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I'm currently in AP Psychology and studying for the exam using the College Board's course description, which contains sample psychology multiple choice questions. Here is one question, taken from the document:

Lee is about to skydive for the first time. He interprets his racing heart to be the result of his eager anticipation and excitement. This best represents which theory of emotion?

(a) Cannon-Bard

(b) James-Lange

(c) Drive reduction

(d) Schachter's two factor

(e) Arousal

Immediately, I ruled out A, B, C, and E, leaving "D" as the choice. But per the definition of the Schachter two factor theory of emotion (alternatively known as the Schachter-Singer model), an emotion is felt only after there has been a physiological response and a cognitive appraisal of the situation. Here is one source that explains this, but our AP Psychology textbook also explains it in that way. I don't see how that matches the given scenario. Why is this correct?

I think it's because he interprets his emotion as anticipation and excitement because of the context - because he's about to go skydiving which is fun and exciting. If he was at home watching a boring TV show and had the same physiological experience, he might think he was having a symptom of some kind of heart disease. If he'd just tried a new drug and had the experience, he'd think it a side effect of the drug. If he'd just met a new person and had the racing heart, he might think he was in love. The physiological response (racing heart) is necessary, but it needs to be defined cognitively according to the context (skydiving), that's the two-factor theory.

Theories of Emotion

As we move through our daily lives, we experience a variety of emotions. An emotion is a subjective state of being that we often describe as our feelings. The words emotion and mood are sometimes used interchangeably, but psychologists use these words to refer to two different things. Typically, the word emotion indicates a subjective, affective state that is relatively intense and that occurs in response to something we experience (Figure 1). Emotions are often thought to be consciously experienced and intentional. Mood, on the other hand, refers to a prolonged, less intense, affective state that does not occur in response to something we experience. Mood states may not be consciously recognized and do not carry the intentionality that is associated with emotion (Beedie, Terry, Lane, & Devonport, 2011). Here we will focus on emotion, and you will learn more about mood in the chapter that covers psychological disorders.

Figure 1. Toddlers can cycle through emotions quickly, being (a) extremely happy one moment and (b) extremely sad the next. (credit a: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk credit b: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk)

We can be at the heights of joy or in the depths of despair or. We might feel angry when we are betrayed, fear when we are threatened, and surprised when something unexpected happens. This section will outline some of the most well-known theories explaining our emotional experience and provide insight into the biological bases of emotion. This section closes with a discussion of the ubiquitous nature of facial expressions of emotion and our abilities to recognize those expressions in others.

Our emotional states are combinations of physiological arousal, psychological appraisal, and subjective experiences. Together, these are known as the components of emotion . These appraisals are informed by our experiences, backgrounds, and cultures. Therefore, different people may have different emotional experiences even when faced with similar circumstances. Over time, several different theories of emotion, shown in Figure 2, have been proposed to explain how the various components of emotion interact with one another.The James-Lange theory of emotion asserts that emotions arise from physiological arousal. Recall what you have learned about the sympathetic nervous system and our fight or flight response when threatened. If you were to encounter some threat in your environment, like a venomous snake in your backyard, your sympathetic nervous system would initiate significant physiological arousal, which would make your heart race and increase your respiration rate. According to the James-Lange theory of emotion, you would only experience a feeling of fear after this physiological arousal had taken place. Furthermore, different arousal patterns would be associated with different feelings.Other theorists, however, doubted that the physiological arousal that occurs with different types of emotions is distinct enough to result in the wide variety of emotions that we experience. Thus, the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion was developed. According to this view, physiological arousal and emotional experience occur simultaneously, yet independently (Lang, 1994). So, when you see the venomous snake, you feel fear at exactly the same time that your body mounts its fight or flight response. This emotional reaction would be separate and independent of the physiological arousal, even though they co-occur.The James-Lange and Cannon-Bard theories have each garnered some empirical support in various research paradigms. For instance, Chwalisz, Diener, and Gallagher (1988) conducted a study of the emotional experiences of people who had spinal cord injuries. They reported that individuals who were incapable of receiving autonomic feedback because of their injuries still experienced emotion however, there was a tendency for people with less awareness of autonomic arousal to experience less intense emotions. More recently, research investigating the facial feedback hypothesis suggested that suppression of facial expression of emotion lowered the intensity of some emotions experienced by participants (Davis, Senghas, & Ochsner, 2009). In both of these examples, neither theory is fully supported because physiological arousal does not seem to be necessary for the emotional experience, but this arousal does appear to be involved in enhancing the intensity of the emotional experience.The Schachter-Singer two-factor theory of emotion is another variation on theories of emotions that takes into account both physiological arousal and the emotional experience. According to this theory, emotions are composed of two factors: physiological and cognitive. In other words, physiological arousal is interpreted in context to produce the emotional experience. In revisiting our example involving the venomous snake in your backyard, the two-factor theory maintains that the snake elicits sympathetic nervous system activation that is labeled as fear given the context, and our experience is that of fear.

Figure 2. This figure illustrates the major assertions of the James-Lange, Cannon-Bard, and Schachter-Singer two-factor theories of emotion. (credit “snake”: modification of work by “tableatny”/Flickr credit “face”: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

It is important to point out that Schachter and Singer believed that physiological arousal is very similar across the different types of emotions that we experience, and therefore, the cognitive appraisal of the situation is critical to the actual emotion experienced. In fact, it might be possible to misattribute arousal to an emotional experience if the circumstances were right (Schachter & Singer, 1962).

To test their idea, Schachter and Singer performed a clever experiment. Male participants were randomly assigned to one of several groups. Some of the participants received injections of epinephrine that caused bodily changes that mimicked the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system however, only some of these men were told to expect these reactions as side effects of the injection. The other men that received injections of epinephrine were told either that the injection would have no side effects or that it would result in a side effect unrelated to a sympathetic response, such as itching feet or headache. After receiving these injections, participants waited in a room with someone else they thought was another subject in the research project. In reality, the other person was a confederate of the researcher. The confederate engaged in scripted displays of euphoric or angry behavior (Schachter & Singer, 1962).

When those subjects who were told that they should expect to feel symptoms of physiological arousal were asked about any emotional changes that they had experienced related to either euphoria or anger (depending on how their confederate behaved), they reported none. However, the men who weren’t expecting physiological arousal as a function of the injection were more likely to report that they experienced euphoria or anger as a function of their assigned confederate’s behavior. While everyone that received an injection of epinephrine experienced the same physiological arousal, only those who were not expecting the arousal used context to interpret the arousal as a change in emotional state (Schachter & Singer, 1962).

Strong emotional responses are associated with strong physiological arousal. This has led some to suggest that the signs of physiological arousal, which include increased heart rate, respiration rate, and sweating, might serve as a tool to determine whether someone is telling the truth or not. The assumption is that most of us would show signs of physiological arousal if we were being dishonest with someone. A polygraph , or lie detector test, measures the physiological arousal of an individual responding to a series of questions. Someone trained in reading these tests would look for answers to questions that are associated with increased levels of arousal as potential signs that the respondent may have been dishonest on those answers. While polygraphs are still commonly used, their validity and accuracy are highly questionable because there is no evidence that lying is associated with any particular pattern of physiological arousal (Saxe & Ben-Shakhar, 1999).

The relationship between our experiencing of emotions and our cognitive processing of them, and the order in which these occur, remains a topic of research and debate. Lazarus (1991) developed the cognitive-mediational theory that asserts our emotions are determined by our appraisal of the stimulus. This appraisal mediates between the stimulus and the emotional response, and it is immediate and often unconscious. In contrast to the Schachter-Singer model, the appraisal precedes a cognitive label. You will learn more about Lazarus’s appraisal concept when you study stress, health, and lifestyle.

Two other prominent views arise from the work of Robert Zajonc and Joseph LeDoux. Zajonc asserted that some emotions occur separately from or prior to our cognitive interpretation of them, such as feeling fear in response to an unexpected loud sound (Zajonc, 1998). He also believed in what we might casually refer to as a gut feeling—that we can experience an instantaneous and unexplainable like or dislike for someone or something (Zajonc, 1980). LeDoux also views some emotions as requiring no cognition: some emotions completely bypass contextual interpretation. His research into the neuroscience of emotion has demonstrated the amygdala’s primary role in fear (Cunha, Monfils, & LeDoux, 2010 LeDoux 1996, 2002). A fear stimulus is processed by the brain through one of two paths: from the thalamus (where it is perceived) directly to the amygdala or from the thalamus through the cortex and then to the amygdala. The first path is quick, while the second enables more processing about details of the stimulus. In the following section, we will look more closely at the neuroscience of emotional response.

Psychology in Music

Neuroscienctist Jospeh LeDoux does more than study emotional processing and conditioning in rats—he is also the lead singer in his band, The Amygdaloids. His band often explains psychological music in their songs. See an example of this in the song, Fearing.

Watch It

Review the theories of emotion in the following Crash Course Psychology video.

Overview of the 6 Major Theories of Emotion

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

Emotions exert an incredibly powerful force on human behavior. Strong emotions can cause you to take actions you might not normally perform or to avoid situations you enjoy. Why exactly do we have emotions? What causes us to have these feelings? Researchers, philosophers, and psychologists have proposed different theories to explain the how and why behind human emotions.

What Is the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion?

The two-factor theory of emotion recognizes that both cognition and arousal play a part in the identification and feeling of emotions. Emotion is not only caused by a sensation in the body or thoughts in the mind. Both of these processes influence the emotions that we feel and express to others. Context, past experiences, and a person’s knowledge of their own body also play a part into how they label or experience emotions.

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Four Theories of Emotion

The four main theories of emotion are interesting views of four scholarly psychologists. The theories are the James-Lange theory, the Cannon-Bard theory, the Schacter-Singer theory, and the Lazarus theory. Each of these four theories explains the order of events that occur when an emotion is present. Each theory is a hypothesis waiting to be tested out. Each of these theories is held by a psychologist(s). The psychologists no matter how far past our time they are experimented to give us the explanations we have today. Emotions aren’t something to play around with. They change us so quickly if we are real enough to let ourselves experience them. Everyone has their own interpretation of their emotions but what is concluded is the majority rule. The first of these theories is the James-Lange theory. Discovered separately by William James and Carl Lange. The James-Lange theory claims that an event first causes physiological arousal and also a physical response. It is not until then that the person interprets the physical response as an emotion. For example, we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, or afraid because we tremble. Basically what this is saying is that the physical aspects appear before the emotions are perceived. So until we physically respond to a situation we do not perceive or understand the emotions surrounding it.

The second theory of emotion is the Cannon-Bard theory. This theory was originally developed by Walter Cannon and later expanded upon by physiologist Phillip Bard. The Cannon-Bard theory suggests the following chain of events: emotion-provoking stimuli are received by the senses and are then relayed simultaneously to the cerebral cortex, which provides the conscious mental experience of the emotion, and to the sympathetic nervous system, which produces the physiological state of arousal. Basically what this is saying, is that you experience both the physical aspect and the.

The Schachter–Singer two-factor theory

The Schachter–Singer theory views emotion as resulting from the interaction of two factors: physiological arousal and cognition.

For example, if you were to see a venomous snake in your backyard, the Schachter–Singer theory argues that the snake would elicit sympathetic nervous system activation (physiological arousal) that would be cognitively labeled as fear (cognition) based on the context. What you would actually experience, then, would be the feeling of fear.

In their research, Singer and Schachter injected participants with adrenaline (epinephrine), which causes a number of physiological effects, such as increased blood flow to the muscles and increased heart rate. They found that injecting the drug did not lead participants to experience any given emotion. Contrary to the James–Lange theory, therefore, which asserts that emotions arise from physiological arousal, this theory argues that bodily changes can support conscious emotional experiences but do not necessarily cause them. Rather, the interpretation of a certain emotion depends on both the individual's physiological state as well as their circumstances, a relationship mediated by cognitive processing.

4. Schachter-Singer’s theory of emotions (Theory of two factors of emotion)

Also known as the theory of the two factors of emotion , the theory of Schachter-Singer of emotions is an example of a cognitive theory of emotion. This theory suggests that physiological arousal occurs first, and then the individual must identify the reason for that arousal in order to experience and label it as an emotion. A stimulus leads to a physiological response that is then cognitively interpreted and labeled, which results in an emotion.

Schachter and Singer’s theory has some of James-Lange’s theory and Cannon-Bard’s theory of emotion. Like the James-Lange theory, the Schachter-Singer theory proposes that people infer emotions based on physiological responses. The critical factor is the situation and the cognitive interpretation that people use to label that emotion.

Like the Cannon-Bard theory, the Schachter-Singer theory also suggests that similar physiological responses can produce varying emotions. For example, if you experience a racing heart and sweat on the palms of your hands during an important math test, you will likely identify the emotion as anxiety. If you have the same physical responses in an encounter with your significant other, you can interpret those responses as love, affection or excitement.

What Is the Schachter Singer Theory

The Schachter Singer theory consists of three primary ideas:

  1. When an individual experiences a state of physiological arousal for which they have no apparent explanation, the individual will describe the state of arousal in terms of the cognitions in their immediate environment, even if the subsequent description is inaccurate.
  2. When an individual experiences a state of arousal for which they have an apparently veracious explanation, the individual is unlikely to search for any alternate explanation in the immediate environment.
  3. When an individual is in a situation similar to situations that have caused emotions in previous experiences, the individual will only experience a similar emotion if they are in a state of physiological arousal.

Each of these theses centers on the underlying relationship between physiological arousal (or lack thereof) and the role of cognitions available in the immediate environment. This relationship can serve to facilitate tenuous connections when no sensible cognition is immediately available, and it can serve obfuscate valid cognitions when a more obvious connection is more immediately available. The initial Schachter Singer experiment and similar experiments thereafter clarify the nature of this relationship.


Emotions are subjective experiences that consist of physiological arousal and cognitive appraisal. Various theories have been put forward to explain our emotional experiences. The James-Lange theory asserts that emotions arise as a function of physiological arousal. The Cannon-Bard theory maintains that emotional experience occurs simultaneous to and independent of physiological arousal. The Schachter-Singer two-factor theory suggests that physiological arousal receives cognitive labels as a function of the relevant context and that these two factors together result in an emotional experience.

The limbic system is the brain’s emotional circuit, which includes the amygdala and the hippocampus. Both of these structures are implicated in playing a role in normal emotional processing as well as in psychological mood and anxiety disorders. Increased amygdala activity is associated with learning to fear, and it is seen in individuals who are at risk for or suffering from mood disorders. The volume of the hippocampus has been shown to be reduced in individuals suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

The ability to produce and recognize facial expressions of emotions seems to be universal regardless of cultural background. However, there are cultural display rules which influence how often and under what circumstances various emotions can be expressed. Tone of voice and body language also serve as a means by which we communicate information about our emotional states.

Watch the video: Two-Factory Theory of Emotion Definition + Experiments + Examples (August 2022).