Two Factor Theory of Emotion

Psychologists have been trying to wrap their heads around how our minds and bodies experience emotion for many years. Multiple theories have tried to explain the role of arousal, cognition, and behavior. But until recently, they have been disproven and replaced with other theories. The most recent theory regarding the body and mind’s recognition of emotions is the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion.

On this page, you will find the answers to many questions about the two-factor theory of emotion, how it works, and the theories that came before it.

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.

Context, past experiences, and a person’s knowledge of their own body also play a part in how they label or experience emotions.

Who Proposed the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion?

Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer proposed the two-factor theory of emotion in 1962. This is why some psychologists refer to this theory as the Schachter-Singer Theory of Emotion. Schachter and Singer were inspired by ideas and theories that were central to the “cognitive revolution” happening in psychology at that time. Cognitive psychology had begun to replace behaviorism as the central school of thought.

Example of the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion

Picture this. You’re down the street at night. All of a sudden, a person wearing a clown costume pops out of nowhere and starts running toward you.

You have an emotional response. But what is it?

Maybe you say, “I feel afraid.” Maybe you say, “I start running.” Maybe you say, “I completely freeze up and start sweating.”

There is a lot that goes into our emotions. We don’t just feel them in our minds – we experience them in our bodies, too. Emotions may drive voluntary or involuntary behaviors. But the two-factor theory of emotion suggests that both the recognition of your sweat and the recognition of your fear of clowns goes into your emotions.

The Two Factors

Schachter and Singer believed that people felt emotions when they experienced arousal and had context or stimuli to help them identify and label their feelings. This process started with arousal.

Physical

In the world of psychology, arousal is a state of wakefulness to the point of perception. While it does play a role in sexual feelings, arousal is also important to fight-or-flight, consciousness, or paying attention.

When a person encounters stimuli that evokes emotions, they first experience it as physiological arousal. This arousal takes place in the sympathetic nervous system. Maybe your palms get sweaty, your chest starts to tighten, or your hands and feet become numb.

Mental

Once a person notices this arousal, they must use environmental cues to interpret what is happening. This leads them to identify their emotions.

This cognitive process is called appraisal. When people are faced with a potentially threatening stimulus, they go through one or multiple rounds of appraisal.

First, a person will experience primary appraisal. Their mind asks, “Is this stimulus a threat?” In the example I used at the beginning of the video, you would probably come to the conclusion that the strange clown running at you is a threat.

Next comes secondary appraisal. The body asks the mind, “How do I handle this threat?” Often, the answer is fight, flight, or freeze. You may find yourself attacking the clown, running away from it, or freezing in place out of extreme fear.

But this isn’t where cognition ends. You may go through reappraisal if you gather new information that changes your perception of the situation. For example, maybe this clown yells out your name. You realize that it’s your best friend’s voice. Now, this clown doesn’t seem like such a threat – your friend is playing a prank on you. Your palms might be sweating and your heart may still be beating fast, but you now label your emotion as “relief” instead of fear.

Testing Schachter and Singer’s Theory

Schachter and Singer tested out their theories about these processes by conducting an experiment. They injected participants with epinephrine, a hormone that causes an increased heart rate and other side effects. Some participants knew that they were going to experience these side effects, and others didn’t. Then, the participants were placed in a room with a confederate. The confederate either acted euphorically or angrily with the participants.

The participants that knew about the side effects did not report significant changes in emotions. But the participants that didn’t know about the side effects were more likely to report changes in their mood. The participants in the room with the euphoric confederate were more likely to label their emotions as euphoric. If they were in the room with the angry confederate, they were more likely to label their emotions as anger.

This showed that both physical arousal and environmental cues influence how a person recognized and identified their emotions.

Examples of Testing The Two-Factor Theory of Emotion in Everyday Life

Reddit user RoboticBody has taken this experiment and put it into dating advice!

“PT: Trick people into being romantically interested in you by doing heart-racing activities…

Because their heart is racing, it is easy for their brain to misattribute increased heart rate from these activities as increased heart rate due to YOU and your proximity to them.

It’s a simple psychological trick that is used in couple’s therapy all the time, and it can help bond two people closer together, even if you’re already romantically interested.

As we all know, emotional response and physiological response is extremely closely related.”

Understanding Your Emotions

This theory assumes that people are in touch with their emotions and the physical responses happening within their bodies. The first time you are experiencing a panic attack, for example, you may not be able to identify what is happening within your body. These new sensations, like your chest tightening or your hands tingling, may be confusing. Yet they are still occurring, whether you can identify them or not.

A study attempted to disprove the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion with a study involving men on a bridge. The participants were asked to walk across two different bridges. One bridge was more narrow and “scary” than the other. At the end of each bridge, a woman gave the men a questionnaire and told them to call her with comments or questions. The researchers found that the men who walked across the scary bridge were much more likely to call the woman and, in their phone call, tell stories that contained sexual content.

Why did they do this? The researchers believe that the men experienced physiological arousal from walking across the scary bridge. They used cognitive processes to determine that their arousal was due to their sexual attraction to the woman. One could argue that the men labeled their emotions incorrectly, but only because their physiological arousal and cognitive interpretations were done in two separate processes.

Other Theories of Emotion

The two-factor theory of emotion is often known as a response to much earlier theories about emotion. Psychologists have wondered for decades why and how we feel the emotions we feel. Could our physical reactions influence our emotions? Do our thoughts cause our bodies to react? 

The two-factory theory is a compromise of each side, but psychologists didn’t always feel that way. Two theories of emotion preceded the two-factor theory of emotion: the James-Lange theory, and the Cannon-Bard theory. 

James-Lange Theory of Emotion

The first theory of emotion in modern psychology was the James-Lange theory, which centered around the body’s physical arousal. Although this theory is considered a tenet of “modern” psychology, it was proposed in the 1880s. William James and Carl Lange did not work side-by-side on this theory; but it was so similar, we group them together when talking about it today. 

James and Lange suggested that all emotions were a result of physical arousal. For example, you may notice that your heart is beating fast, and realize that you’re scared. You have to notice these physical changes in your body before an emotion is felt. 

There are a number of problems with this theory. First, one physical side effect can signal many different emotions. Maybe your heart is beating fast because you’re nervous. Maybe you’re excited. A high heart rate could be the result of being in love or running on a treadmill. James and Lange failed to explain how one or a set of physical side effects relates to a multitude of emotions. (In fact, there are times when we misattribute physical arousal. We may think we’re in love, but it’s because we did a nerve-wracking activity!) 

Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

Forty years after James and Lange proposed their theories of emotion, Walter Cannon and Philip Bard offered their ideas about emotion. The Cannon-Bard theory argues that emotions and physical arousal happen simultaneously, separate from each other. For example, you may see a wild animal. One part of the mind worked to understand your emotions, while a completely separate part of the mind worked to express them throughout your body. 

One of Cannon and Bard’s criticisms of the James-Lange Theory, along with the rest of the psychology world, is that James and Lange did not have enough evidence. So how did Water Cannon and Philip Bard test out their theory of emotion? They experimented, not on humans, but on cats. Cannon and Bard completely separated the sympathetic nervous system from a group of cats to see how their emotions would be affected. The cats still experienced emotion when faced with certain stimuli. 

Of course, this theory had critics of its own. Physical symptoms can influence emotions. Have you ever tried deep breathing to calm yourself down? Maybe you’ve smiled brightly to cheer yourself up. If you can change your emotions with these processes, maybe emotions and physical arousal aren’t completely separate processes. 

These types of critiques are what brought Schachter and Singer to test out their own hypotheses around emotions. 

Criticisms of The Two-Factor Theory of Emotion

Does this mean that the two-factor theory of emotion is the end-all, be-all theory of emotion? Not at all! Although this theory is more widely accepted than the ones that came before it, it still has its critics.

The two-factor theory of emotion is relatively new to the world of psychology. It was first introduced in 1962. Not all replications of Schachter and Singer’s original studies have gotten the same results. While there might be more to explore when it comes to the mental and physical processes involved in identifying emotions, Schachter and Singer’s theory brings us closer than some of the simpler explanations that came before it.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.