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Emotional psychology: main theories of emotion

Emotional psychology: main theories of emotion

May 7, 2021

The emotions They exert a great force on us and influence our thinking and our behavior, that is why they have a great weight in the study of psychology. In recent years, different theories have emerged that try to explain the how and why of human emotions and, moreover, in the world of psychology, emotional intelligence has been gaining ground for its benefits in the well-being of people and emotional development .

Concepts such as emotional validation, emotional self-control or emotional management are increasingly familiar to us, and in the organizational world as well as in sports, correct emotional management is closely related to performance.


Article to deepen: "The basic emotions are four, and not six as it was believed"

Emotions: what exactly are they?

Emotions are usually defined as a complex affective state , a subjective reaction that occurs as a result of physiological or psychological changes that influence thinking and behavior. In psychology, they are associated with different phenomena, including temperament, personality, humor or motivation.

According to David G. Meyers, a psychologist expert on emotions, human emotions involve "physiological arousal, expressive behavior and conscious experience."

Theories of Emotion

The most important theories of emotion can be grouped into three categories : physiological, neurological Y cognitive.


Physiological theories suggest that intracorporal responses are responsible for emotions. Neurological theories propose that activity in the brain leads to emotional responses. And, finally, cognitive theories argue that thoughts and other mental activities play an essential role in the formation of emotions.

But, What theories of emotion exist? Here we present the best known theories of emotional psychology.

Evolutionary theory of emotion (Charles Darwin)

The evolutionary theory of emotion has its origin in the ideas of Charles Darwin, who he stated that emotions evolved because they were adaptive and allowed human beings to survive and reproduce . For example, the emotion of fear forced people to fight or avoid danger.


Therefore, according to the evolutionary theory of emotion, our emotions exist because they help us to survive. Emotions motivate people to respond quickly to a stimulus from the environment, which increases the chances of survival.

In addition, understanding the emotions of other people or animals also plays a crucial role in safety and survival.

Theory of emotion by James-Lange

This is one of the most well-known physiological theories of emotion. Proposed independently by William James and Carl Lange, this theory suggests that emotions occur as a consequence of physiological reactions to events .

In addition, this emotional reaction is dependent on the way we interpret those physical reactions. For example, imagine that you walk through the forest and see a bear. You start to tremble and your heart speeds up. According to the James-Lange theory, you will interpret your physical reaction and conclude that you are frightened: "I am trembling and, therefore, I am afraid". So, this theory states that you do not tremble because you're scared, but that you're scared because you tremble.

Emotion theory of Cannon-Bard

Another well-known theory of emotion is that of Cannon-Bard. Walter Cannon did not agree with the previous theory for different reasons. First, He suggested that people experience the physiological reactions associated with emotions without feeling the emotion . For example, the heart can be accelerated because you practice sports, not necessarily because of fear. In addition, Cannon suggested that we feel emotions at the same time as physiological reactions. Cannon proposed this theory in the 20s, but the physiologist Philip Bard, during the decade of the 30 decided to expand this work.

Specifically, this theory suggests that emotions occur when the thalamus sends a message to the brain in response to a stimulus, which causes a physiological reaction. At the same time, the brain also receives a message about the emotional experience. This happens simultaneously.

Theory of Schachter-Singer

This theory is part of the cognitive theories of emotion, and suggests that physiological activation occurs first . Next, the individual must identify the reasons for this activation to experience the emotion label.A stimulus causes a physiological response that is then interpreted and labeled cognitively, which becomes the emotional experience.

The theory of Schachter and Singer is inspired by the previous two. On the one hand, like James-Lange's theory, he proposes that people infer their emotions from physiological responses. However, it is differentiated from it by the importance of the situation and the cognitive interpretation that individuals make to label emotions.

On the other hand, just like Cannon-Bard's theory, he also maintains that similar physiological reactions provoke a great variety of emotions.

Theory of cognitive evaluation

According to this theory, thought must occur before the experience of emotion . Richard Lazarus was the pioneer in this theory, reason why this one usually receives the name of the theory of the emotion of Lazarus. In summary, this theoretical artifact affirms that the sequence of events first implies a stimulus, followed by an emotion.

For example, if you are in a forest and you see a bear, first you will think that you are in danger. This causes the emotional experience of fear and physiological reaction, which can end in flight.

Emotion theory of facial feedback

This theory states that facial expressions are connected to emotional experience . Some time ago, both Charles Darwin and William James noticed that, on occasion, physiological responses had a direct impact on emotions, rather than simply being a consequence of emotion. According to the theorists of this theory, emotions are directly related to the changes produced in the facial muscles.

For example, people who have to force their smile in a certain social environment, will have a better time than those who have a more neutral facial expression.

The relationship of emotions with well-being

In the last decade, the theory of emotional intelligence has begun to gain ground. This type of intelligence, which began to become popular thanks to Daniel Goleman , has its origin in the vision of the intelligence of Professor Howard Gardner, the theory of multiple intelligences.

There are numerous studies that affirm that emotional intelligence is key to the well-being of people, because self-knowledge, emotional regulation or empathy positively affect the psychological well-being of individuals, as well as personal relationships or work or sports development. .

To know more about emotional intelligence, we recommend you read the following articles :

  • "What is Emotional Intelligence? Discovering the importance of emotions"
  • "The 10 benefits of emotional intelligence"

Theories of Emotion | Processing the Environment | MCAT | Khan Academy (May 2021).


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