The Psychology Behind Emotions


Emotions play a crucial role in our lives, influencing how we perceive situations, relate to others, and motivate our behaviour. For centuries, philosophers and scientists have developed theories in an attempt to define the key aspects of emotions and explain how and why they occur.

Ancient Theories of Emotions

In his dialogue, Phaedrus, Plato proposed that emotions derive from the appetitive part of the soul. The appetites desire certain things, and when we do not obtain what we want, pain results. Pleasure stems from satisfying our appetites. Plato saw emotions as irrational occurrences that could override reason.

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Other ancient theories focused on the role of the mind and body in producing emotions. Stoic philosophers such as Seneca proposed that emotions arise from judgments and thoughts about situations or events. How we assess a situation generates emotional reactions and bodily changes. Many emotions also have a biological basis as the body responds to nervous arousal, endocrine changes, and alterations in facial expression, posture, and vocal tone.

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James-Lange Theory of Emotions

The James-Lange theory is one of the earliest biological theories of emotions. Psychologists William James and Carl Lange independently proposed that emotions occur as a consequence of physiological reactions to events. For example, we don’t cry because we feel sad. We experience sadness as a result of crying, which triggers related changes in hormones, respiration, temperature, and other physical states.

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Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotions

Later theories took an opposing viewpoint that physiological responses follow rather than produce an emotional experience. Walter Cannon and Philip Bard developed the Cannon-Bard theory of emotions in the 1930s. They proposed that emotions result from simultaneous events in the physical body and brain when a stimulus elicits an emotional reaction. After detecting a stimulus, areas such as the thalamus in the midbrain activate at the same time as the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a bodily response. Together, these physiological and psychological processes shape emotion.

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Two-factor Theory of Emotions

Two-factor theory is another variation that incorporates elements of both the James-Lange and Cannon-Bard theories. Developed by Schacter and Singer in 1962, this theory proposes that arousal is critical for generating emotion but does not specify content. Cognitive processes determine how we label the specific emotion. For example, physiological arousal could indicate anger, fear, or anxiety depending on how we appraise the situation.

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Facial Feedback Hypothesis

The facial feedback hypothesis describes a related view that facial expressions can both shape and reflect emotions through a feedback loop between the central nervous system and facial muscles (23). Adjusting our facial expression, posture, tone of voice and other physical attributes influences how we interpret situations and experience emotions as physiological signals from the body impact brain processes.

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Cognitive-Mediational Theory of Emotion

While the previous theories emphasise immediate, automatic emotional reactions to triggering stimuli or events, cognitive appraisal approaches propose a more evaluative process that assesses the meaning and relevance of a situation before physiological or behavioural responses kick in. Primary appraisal judges whether an event has implications for our well-being, while secondary appraisal evaluates available options for coping (Lazarus, 1991). This approach places more emphasis on how thoughts, beliefs and priorities colour emotional experiences.

Contemporary Research

More contemporary theories of emotion incorporate biological, social and goal-directed elements. According to affective events theory, workplace emotions result from how employees consciously and unconsciously evaluate events about concerns, commitments and desired goals (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996). Attributions about the causes of events are also important in informing emotional experiences. For example, blaming failure on another person elicits more anger than attributing failure to situational factors. Social elements are also critical as cultural norms and values shape emotional expression and regulation.

Adults possess a wide array of categories for labelling emotional states that emerge across cultures, although some emotions appear universally recognized. In 1972, psychologist Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions—joy, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust and fear. Newer research also highlights awe, shame and pride as fundamental human emotions grounded in evolution and neurobiology (Tracy et al., 2019). More complex emotional schemas develop over childhood based on verbal and nonverbal labels we learn for our internal feeling states within our social and cultural context. This allows more nuanced descriptions of blended or mixed emotional experiences.

Emotions play an integrative role as both influencing and being influenced by sensory input, cognition, motivation, goals, beliefs, physiological reactions and behaviour. While the debate continues, contemporary theorists recognize emotion as a multifaceted phenomenon in which the brain acts as an emotional neurocomputer receiving stimuli from the body and external events, before classifying input and making continuous forecasting and preparations for action (Rolls, 2021). Individual factors, relationships, group dynamics and cultural forces all intersect to shape emotional interpretations and expressions. Being able to appropriately perceive, express and regulate one’s own emotions and respond to others’ feelings emerges as a key competency for negotiating interpersonal situations and collective spaces (Mayer, Salovey & Caruso, 2008).

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Summing Up

Understanding emotions remains vitally important as these states communicate what we value, alert us to threats, and prepare us to act in adaptive ways as we pursue purpose and meaning in our daily lives. By continuing to refine theories of emotion that take a biopsychosocial approach, integrate research across disciplines, and consider context and culture, we can gain greater insight into what makes us feel, how physiological processes operate together with our thoughts and beliefs to generate emotions, and the far-reaching impact of these complex human experiences on our wellbeing and relationships.

References +
  • Plato. (360 B.C.E.). Phaedrus.
  • Seneca. (1969). Seneca ad Lucilium epistulae morales, Vol. 1-3. (R. M. Gummere, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1st century AD)
  • James, W. (1884). What is an emotion? Mind, 9(34), 188-205. 
  • Lange, C. G. (1885). The emotions. In E. Dunlap (Ed.). The emotions (pp. 33-90). Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins.
  • Cannon, W. B. (1927). The James-Lange theory of emotion: A critical examination and an alternative theory. The American Journal of Psychology, 39, 106-124.
  • Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69(5), 379-399. 
  • Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Weiss, H.M., & Cropanzano, R. (1996). Affective events theory: A theoretical discussion of the structure, causes and consequences of affective experiences at work. In B.M. Staw & L.L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior (Vol. 18, pp. 1-74). US: Elsevier Science/JAI Press.
  • Ekman, P. (1972). Universals and cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion. In J. Cole (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1971 (pp. 207-283). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Tracy, J.L., Randles, D., & Steckler, C.M. (2019). The psychological structure of pride: A tale of two facets. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(3), 433-450. 
  • Rolls, E. T. (2021). Brain computations: what and how. Oxford University Press.
  • Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P.,& Caruso, D. R. (2008). Emotional intelligence: New ability or eclectic traits? American Psychologist, 63(6), 503-517.
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