Developed by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion is a physiological explanation of emotion. It states that humans feel emotions and experience physiological reactions such as sweating, muscle tension, or trembling while we feel emotions such as fear.
The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion is one of many theories of emotion, and one of six significant theories. These theories can all be broken up into three categories:
- Physiological Theories: These theories suggest that responses within the body are responsible for emotions.
- Neurological Theories: These theories suggest that activity within the brain leads to emotional responses.
- Cognitive Theories: These theories suggest that thoughts and other mental activity play an essential role in forming emotions.
The Cannon-Bard theory would fall under physiological theories because it suggests that our physiological reactions to certain situations are experienced simultaneously as the emotions of the given situation.
How the Cannon-Bard Theory Works
The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion states that stimulating events trigger feelings and physical reactions that occur at the same time.
One of the most common scenarios given to explain this theory goes like this:
A woman is walking in the woods when she comes across a wild bear. On seeing the bear, the woman begins to feel nervous. At the same time, she notices that her muscles tense up, she starts trembling and even notices that she starts to sweat.
While the concept may seem a little hard to understand at first, it’s actually straightforward.
The initial stimulus (seeing the bear) is followed by the emotion (nervousness), which is then followed by either a reaction or a response (trembling/sweating).
More specifically, Cannon and Bard’s theory suggests that emotions result when the thalamus sends a message to the brain in response to a given stimulus. This results in a physiological reaction. Simultaneously, the brain also receives signals that trigger the emotional experience. This suggests that the psychological and physical experience of emotions happen at the same time and that one doesn’t trigger the other as other theories suggest.
How Is the Cannon-Bard Theory Different from Other Theories of Emotion?
We know that the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion states that both the psychological and physical experience of emotions happen at the same time. So, what do other theories of emotion suggest? Let’s take a few minutes to look at a few of the other top theories on emotion.
The James-Lange Theory of Emotion
The James-Lange theory of emotion is often compared directly to the Cannon-Bard theory and is also one of the best-known examples of a physiological theory of emotion. This theory of emotion suggests that emotions occur as a result of physiological reactions to events.
Instead of the feeling of the emotions and the physiological responses happening at the same time, in this theory, the individual experiences the physical response, such as shaking or increased heart rate, and then concludes that they must be in fear of something.
Evolutionary Theory of Emotion
Charles Darwin proposed that emotions evolve because they were adaptive and allowed people and even animals to survive and reproduce. According to the evolutionary theory of emotion, people’s emotions exist because they serve an adaptive role. This means that our emotions help to motivate us to respond quickly to any given stimuli and helps to improve chances of survival.
Remember that bear in the woods? Say you see it moving slowly in a low position. Chances are, you will register that the bear is either frightened or trying to hunt, so you then know not to stand around taking photos of it.
Facial Feedback Theory of Emotion
The facial feedback theory of emotion suggests that facial expressions, such as smiling, are connected to experiencing emotions. Those that believe in this theory of emotion suggest that emotions are directly tied to changes in facial muscles.
A common example used to describe this theory is that if you put a person in a social situation and tell them to smile, they are more likely to enjoy the social gathering. This is because a smile is associated with pleasant feelings.
Cognitive Appraisal Theory
According to this theory, thinking must happen before a person can experience emotion. In this theory, there is first a stimulus which is then followed by a thought, which then leads to the simultaneous experience of a physiological response and an emotion.
Let’s take the bear example again. You come across the bear in the woods and immediately believe you are in danger. This then leads to the feelings of fear and the physical reactions that follow.
Examples of the Cannon-Bard Theory in Action
We’ve taken a look at the bear in the woods example, but how can we relate the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion in our day-to-day lives?
Here are a few examples that we can more closely relate to.
Feelings of Happiness
A young girl in her final months of high school has just received a letter from her top pick in colleges that she applied to. When she opens the letter, her eyes fall on the very first word, which read, “Congratulations!” Her heart starts to race, and a smile spreads across her face. She knows that her racing heart isn’t a sign of fear, so she excitedly calls out for her family because she is excited and wants to celebrate with them.
The stimulus is the letter from the college and the word “congratulations,” which is followed by the racing heart and the smile on her face. She feels happy so she calls out for her family and tells them the good news.
Feelings of Sadness/Grief
A young man is about to turn in his first assignment to his boss. This is not only his first assignment but his first job fresh out of school. He has high hopes as he hands it over to his boss, but the feeling of butterflies soon turns to a crushing weight as his boss tells him that the project needs to be done over. Something isn’t right at the beginning, making the whole thing incorrect. This crushing weight deflates his mood as he slowly walks out of the room, assuring his boss that he will get it done right this time.
The stimulus, in this case, would be the boss’s reaction, which is followed by the crushing weight. This causes the young man to feel sadness and even a little bit of grief because he was so excited to complete his first assignment, but because it wasn't done right, he now has to do it all over again.
Feelings of Anger
A mother is out at the park with her young child. This is the first beautiful day in a week after some crummy weather, keeping her and the child in the house for far too long. A smile is on the mom’s face while she watches her little one playing on a swing. Before long, the mother hears her child cry out after another child pushed her child off the swing. The mother’s smile falls off her face as her stomach turns over and her cheeks turn hot.
The stimulus here is the second child pushing the mother’s child off the swing, which leads the mother to feel her stomach turn over and her cheeks turn hot. The mother is feeling anger as a result of watching another kid push her child off the swing.
A Quick Review of The Cannon-Bard Theory
The Cannon-Bard theory of emotions is one of many theories. What makes this theory unique is that the person’s emotional response to any given stimulus isn’t dependent on their physical or emotional response.
In many of the other theories, the person’s response dictates their emotion. In this case, the emotion can result in any number of responses. Take the reaction in the feelings of sadness/grief example. That young man could have had any number of reactions to his boss saying that he needed to redo the assignment. He could have gotten angry and refused, or he could have gotten excited and seen this as a new challenge to prove his skills.
Each individual’s responses to any given stimulus can and will vary, and this is seen through the Cannon-Bard theory of emotions.
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