Emotions are an important part of the life of every human being. Plants, animals, perhaps even objects have them, but that’s not the subject we are going to deal with here.

Our main focus will be feelings and emotions related to people.

We will give you a thorough and practical overview of 6 major theories of emotions, along with explanations of how they work and what are they based on.

Have in mind that this won’t be a guide on how to decode emotions because that’s impossible.

Our research will simply give you a better insight into their structure, cause and enable you to have a better understanding.

We can freely say that emotions have their own lives and what we can do is learn about them throughout the entire life.


Being such a changeable and complex conditions, emotions are indeed hard to define. However, psychology offers some explanation.

They represent a complex state which results in alteration of feelings, both psychological and physical.

They have an enormous impact on our thoughts and behaviors.

Emotionality is in connection with a wide spectrum of psychological phenomena such as mood, temperament, personality, and motivation.

As you can see, even the simplest and the shortest possible definition has a multi-layered structure which requires constant revision.

The more approaches there are, the higher are the chances to get to know them better.

There are plenty of burning questions regarding feelings-what are they, why do we have them, is it possible to control them, and so on?

Experts from numerous fields such as philosophers, researchers, psychologist, scientists, and numerous others give their vision and explanation.

As for the list itself, there are also many versions. As far as Robert Plutchik categorized them:

  1. Joy is defined as the feeling of happiness (or gladness, as you wish).
  2. Sadness, the opposite of the first one, means feeling sad, unhappy. The stronger words we can use to describe this emotion are sorrow and grief.
  3. Anger is when a person feels angry. The synonym for this one is rage, expressing even more intense level of angriness.
  4. Fear is the feeling of being scared, terrified, frightened.
  5. Disgust expresses strong disapproval when we feel that something’s nasty or wrong.
  6. Trust belongs to positive feelings when we say that we can rely on someone. A bit more neutral word for this one is acceptance, whereas admiration is a bit deeper option to express this emotion.
  7. Surprise comes when we are not prepared for something, and it can be both positive and negative.
  8. Anticipation can also be described as a positive feeling, as it’s the sense of looking forward to some future event. If we want to use a bit more neutral option, the expectation is an appropriate word.

The extended lists include an entire palette of feelings such as friendship, kindness, envy, hatred, anxiety, craving, nostalgia, sexual desire, and many others.

However, whichever of these additional ones you take, you can easily conclude that it represents a combination of two or more of the eight basic ones we listed.

Each of the emotions encompasses three key elements:

1. Subjective Experience

Although basic emotions are a thing in common for all the people around the world still experiencing them depends on one to another individual.

The intensity of the emotions also plays an important role, as an individual personally sees a situation as more or less sad/happy/disgusting and so on.

In addition to this, mixed emotions add more diversity and complexity to subjective experience.

2. The Physiological Response

The sympathetic nervous system is a branch of the autonomic nervous system and it controls numerous physiological reactions.

Those include an excessive heart-beating, palms sweating, rapid breathing and so on.

This system has another significant role, as it’s in charge of controlling involuntary body reactions (fight-or-flight, for example).

Some recent studies pointed out that amygdala, part of the limbic system has a significant role in emotion and fear, and is in charge of motivational states such as hunger, thirst, emotions, and memory.

This was confirmed in various studies where it was noticed that amygdala activated when people were shown some disturbing pictures.

Therefore, damaged amygdala leads to the lack of the fear response.

3. The Behavioral Response

This represents the actual expression of the emotion.

It’s a fact that many expressions are universal across cultures, but the culture itself makes slight differences in interpretations.

That ability to understand the expressions precisely involves emotional intelligence and has a notable impact over body language.


Before we get down to analyzing one by one of 6 theories, we would like to point out that, based on approaches, they can be divided into three following types:

  • Neurological – which claim that emotional reaction is a result of brain activity.
  • Cognitive – which believe that thoughts and other mental activities are responsible for forming emotions.
  • Psychological – which imply that reactions within the body play an important role in emotions forming.

All of them are crucial for creating a clearer picture about possible, as every single aspect is an integral part of every emotion and feeling that we experience.

Our entire body and mind, both conscious and unconscious part take part in making emotions more or less intense.

For that reason, learning about as many theories as possible will help you understand yourself and other human beings much better.


Some people believe that he’s one of the greatest scientists of all times, while the others deeply disagree with all his work and conclusion.

Nevertheless, this naturalist proposed an important theory regarding emotions. As he declared, emotions evolved due to adaptability allowing human beings and animals to survive and reproduce.

According to him, humans seek the other halves and they desire to reproduce because they feel affection and love. “Flight or flee” when in danger happens because we feel fear.

These two and all the other emotions exist to serve an adaptive role.

Their ultimate purpose is to motivate human beings to respond quickly to stimuli in the environment.

By doing so, they increase the chances to succeed and of course survive.

For that reason, having a deep understanding of how emotions work improves the chances to survive and to maintain safety at some balanced level.

Let’s take a simple and practical example from life to explain this. Imagine yourself walking through the fields of colorful flowers and you suddenly encounter a clawing animal that hisses.

What do you do?

Well, if a creature is significantly smaller than you, chances are you will instantly realize that the poor critter is terrified and his behavior implies he/she is ready to defend.

You will also feel relief because you will realize your life is not in danger. In case it’s a bear…how about we do not imagine that scenario?

In any case, the point is that your mind and body interact together and help you interpret other people’s (or animals’) emotions and react to the situation adequately.

That way we avoid danger and minimize chances to panic in some not so risky situations such as the one we described.


This theory puts the thinking process before experiencing emotions. As far as it explains, the sequence goes as follows:

Stimulus – thought – the simultaneous experience of response – emotion

Remember the bear we mentioned? Well, unfortunately, we have to imagine that terrifying situation, for the sake of explaining this theory as precise as possible.

So, if by any chance, we encounter this gigantic animal while walking in the woods (stimulus), we will naturally think that we are in a dangerous situation (thought).

This further results in being afraid (experience of response) which initiates the “fight or flight response” in us (emotion).

This learning is built on Schacter-Singer’s theory, which shall be introduced later.

As with the previous one, it’s always a stimulus that is in charge of some responses going on in our bodies and minds.


According to this study, there’s a connection between facial expression and expressing emotions.

Two scientists suggested that in a certain number of occasions, psychological reactions frequently have a direct impact on feelings, rather than being just a consequence.

Furthermore, this means that there’s a direct relation between emotions and alterations in facial muscles.

For example, if you were to attend a boring party that you would like to avoid, what should you do? Put on a neutral facial expression or try to smile politely?

In case your choice is number two, be sure that you will have a much better time than appearing with a dull face.

Even if this represents masking your true emotions, your body will somehow realize what are you trying to achieve and will “assist” you in creating the illusion.

This certainly doesn’t mean that we can control our emotions, but we can mask them to a certain extent.

The whole point is that the feelings inside us reflect on our face because our body is looking for a way to express them.


Being one of the most frequently mentioned concepts regarding defining emotions, this idea was independently suggested by two experts.

William James (psychologist) and Carl Lange (physiologist) came up with an idea that sentiments are a result of physiological reactions to certain occasions.

It’s time to invite our bear again so that we can explain this precisely!

So, if you were to encounter one in the woods (hopefully not) and you begin to tremble.

As far as this theory suggests, the reaction will depend on how one interprets the reaction.

So, after you interpret your responses (“I am trembling!”) you will conclude how you feel (“I’m afraid.”).

The theory implies that a person is not trembling because he/she feels frightened, but feels terrified because he/she is trembling.

Sounds puzzling, doesn’t it?

Well, to put it simply, they say that the reason we experience some emotion is that an external stimulus provoked a physical response.

To illustrate their vision even better we shall take one more situation.

What do you think do we blush because we feel embarrassed or vice versa?

Well, these guys opt for the second version- we feel embarrassed because we blush.

This means that physiological arousal comes before the experience of emotion.


Disagreeing with their idea in several various aspects, Walter Canon gave his vision of what emotions are.

As he pointed out, individuals can experience physiological responses related to emotions without even feeling them.

How’s that possible?

For example, if your heart is beating, it doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you are afraid. The reason may be exercising.

He also added that emotional reactions occur to fast to be considered products of physical states.

So, if a bear appears before your eyes, or some other immediate danger, you will feel terrified before you even begin experiencing physical symptoms that are in relation with fear (rapid breathing, trembling, heart beating, and so on).

So, the approach favors the opinion that we experience physiological reactions and feel emotions at the same time.

Using scientific vocabulary, when thalamus transmits a message to the cerebrum reacting to a stimulus, the result is a physiological response.

While this goes on, at the same moment a signal comes to the cerebrum and activates the emotional experience.

As far as theory concludes, psychological and physical experience of sentiment occur synchronously, they don’t cause each other. This idea was primarily suggested by Cannon in 1920.

In the 1930s, Philip Bard, a physiologist upgraded his work, which is why this approach bears the name of both experts.


Belonging to the cognitive beliefs, this one implies that the physiological arousal comes first, after which a human being needs to identify the reason for the arousal and label it as a specific emotion.

Scientifically said, a stimulus leads to a physiological reaction which is later cognitively interpreted and defined, resulting in an emotion.

This idea relies on two important theories we already described- James-Lange and Cannon-Bard’s.

Similarity with the first one lies in the fact that individuals express emotions based on physiological feedback.

The critical factor is the event and cognitive interpretation that human beings utilize to identify that very emotion.

As for the similarities with the second one, this idea implies that similar physiological reactions lead to diverse emotions.

For example, when the heart is beating and you are breathing quickly during an interview, this will be defined as anxiety.

However, if the same responses occur during a date with someone special, the responses will be labeled as affection or love.


Now that you have all the six approaches explained before your very eyes, is it easier to answer this question?

Not at all!

All of them have more or fewer supporters.

Some theories and views are more researched and studies, the others are less.

Some of them are more intricate, the others seem simple or simply not enough explained.

But, the main point is that each of them makes some sense.

Each of the approaches gives us a valuable insight into how our mind and body work, why do they act the way they do, and how we may expect them to develop in specific occasions.

However, as we said somewhere in the beginning, we still cannot decode them precisely.

Not just us, no one can do so.

Though we have a definition what are they, we cannot be sure if we will react the same in the same or similar situations, because numerous factors have a significant influence over that.

It’s the age, culture, sex, situation, number and structure of people involved in the event, and a plethora of other aspects that will lead the reaction in one or another way.

Nevertheless, these theories altogether drastically improve our knowledge and help us deal with situations easier.


Before we give some conclusion to this interesting and multi-layered topic, there’s one thing left to clarify.

Though we used them as synonyms here (and not just us, numerous people do so), there are distinctions between these two phenomena.

They are intertwined, they represent two sides of the same medal, but they are not the same.

Emotions are lower level reactions occurring in the subcortical areas of the cerebrum, the amygdala, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices.

The biochemical reactions in our bodies and changed physical conditions are a result of these procedures.

Their very first role was to increase the chances for human beings to survive by rapidly responding to various situations such as threat, reward, and variations of these two in their surroundings.

These responses are written in our genes.

Despite the slight distinctions on an individual level and the fact that they vary based on circumstances, human beings and even other species share universal emotions.

Speaking of the feeling of joy, people smile and dogs, express the same thing by waging the tail.

The amygdala is in charge of emotional arousal and it controls the release of neurotransmitters vital for memory consolidation.

That’s why emotional memories can be so much intense and last very long.

Emotions appear before feelings, they are instinctual and physical so they can be evaluated and defined precisely by diverse parameters, such as brain activity, blood flow, facial expressions (micro and macro), and body language.

Feelings are born in the neocortical areas of the cerebrum. They are impacted by personal experience, beliefs, and memories.

Feelings can be defined as mental connections and responses to emotions. They can also be individual.

A feeling represents a mental depiction of what happens in our body when an emotion occurs.

It is the “side-effect” of our cerebrum and it recognizes an emotion, assigning certain meaning to it.  They are the next thing occurring after having an emotion.

They include a subconscious cognitive input, so it’s impossible to evaluate them precisely.

Feelings are triggered by emotions and painted by the thoughts, memories, and images that have become unconsciously related to that particular emotion.

But it functions vice versa too.

For example, just imagining something that terrifies us can spark an emotional fear reaction.

While personal sentiments are temporary, the feelings they inspire may endure and grow over a lifetime.

Because sentiments provoke subliminal feelings which in turn trigger emotions and so on, our life can become an endless cycle of puzzling emotions which result in negative feelings which trigger more negative emotions.

And we never really know the exact reason.

While basic emotions are instinctual and common to all human beings, the meanings they take on and the feelings they cause are based on personal past and present events.

Feelings are shaped by a person’s temperament and experiences and vary greatly from one person to another and one occasion to another.

They represent the driving force behind many deeds, which can be either helpful or not.

Being able to understand the distinctions between them will result in appropriate feedback.

That’s what makes the difference between a calm or chaotic life.

That’s how we determine the way we navigate and experience the world.

In the gaps between emotion, feeling, and acting, we all have the power to alter and lead our lives in some positive direction.

Understanding our emotions and managing your feelings with conscious thinking so they don’t hijack our brain and acting mindfully can influence our life significantly.


Though this topic belongs to “never-ending stories”, a subject that has so many meanings and approaches, still we hope that the picture is at least a bit clearer than it was before you encountered our detailed guide.

Again, our idea was not to give you a secret formula but to improve your overall vision on emotions, their causes and effect, and a variety of ideas about how they occur and function.

This useful lesson will certainly help you understand the laws of emotions a bit better which will consequently improve your overall understanding of yourself and other beings. And that’s a lot.

Our overview certainly brought a multitude of valuable information, but what we would like you to do is not just read our article, but try to find the practical application of it in real life.

Overview of the 6 Major Theories of Emotion

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