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.
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 first theory of emotion in modern psychology was the James-Lange theory, which centered around the body’s physical arousal. It was replaced by the Cannon-Bard theory, which argued that emotions start in the mind, not the body.
These theories didn’t satisfy many cognitive psychologists, including Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer. This led to the creation of the Schachter-Singer Theory of Emotion, also known as the “Two-Factor Theory of Emotion.”
Let’s break down what these two factors are, how they work together, and how this theory fits into cognitive psychology.
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.
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.
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.
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 euphoria. 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.
Understanding Your Emotions
This theory assumes that people are in touch with their emotions and the physical responses happening within their body. 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.
Criticisms of The Two-Factor Theory of Emotion
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.