In this lesson, we will discuss Stanley Schachter’s two-factor theory of emotion. When you’ve finished the lesson, you’ll also have the chance to test your own knowledge of the two-factor theory of emotion with a short quiz.
Emotion as Experience
While driving down a dark road on her way home from an evening basketball game, Lila sees another car coming toward her from the opposite direction. Suddenly, the car swerves into her lane, and for a few terrifying minutes, it looks like both vehicles are about to be involved in a head-on collision.
Lila’s palms begin to sweat and her heart starts pounding. She knows that she will be seriously hurt if the two cars collide. Lila begins to feel intense fear. At the last minute, the oncoming car swerves back into its lane and narrowly avoids hitting Lila. So how can we explain what Lila just experienced emotionally? One way is to look at Schachter’s two-factor theory of emotion.
Two-Factor Theory of Emotion
The two-factor theory of emotion was developed by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer in the 1960’s; it is also referred to as the Schachter-Singer Theory. According to Schachter and Singer, our emotions are the product of both physical arousal and our thoughts, the result of a biological and cognitive process.According to the theory, when we’re exposed to a stimulating event, we find a way to understand what we’ve just experienced. For example, we look for cues in our environment and our past experiences to help us cognitively label the physiological arousal.
Inevitably, the stimulating event leads to some type of physical symptoms, such as sweating, increased heart rate, heavy breathing, and other related symptoms. Only after these thoughts and symptoms occur do we experience a specific emotion.It is important to note that our physiological arousal may be the same for several different emotions, which is why cognitive labels are so important. Arousal itself isn’t enough; it is also necessary for us to identify the arousal.
The Theory at Work
Let’s take another look at Lila’s near accident on the dark road.
The sight of the oncoming car veering into her lane is the stimulating event. Once Lila processes the event, her heart begins to pound faster and harder and she starts to sweat. As her sweaty palms grip the steering wheel of her car, Lila labels her physiological response, as ‘I am afraid.’ As a result, Lila experiences the emotion of fear.While Lila spent the next day at home recovering from her close call on the road, her friend, Stacy, was at home watching television. In the middle of the show, the doorbell rang.
When Stacy opened the door, she found a large box with a bow on it addressed to her. The box was too heavy to drag inside, so Stacy started to open the package on her porch.When she pried open the top, her husband, a member of the U.S. military who had been deployed overseas for over a year, popped out. At the sight of her husband, Stacy’s heart began to pound and her breathing became short and quick.
In that moment, Stacy interpreted her response as joy and experiences an intense feeling of happiness.
Developed by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer in the 1960s, the two-factor theory of emotion, also known as the Schachter-Singer theory, proposes our experience of emotions depends on two things: physiological arousal and our cognitive interpretation of the arousal. Examples of physiological arousal include sweating, heavy breathing, and an increased heart rate.
To cognitively interpret an event, we look to our environment and past experiences for cues. It is not enough to experience a stimulating event or be cognitive of that event; we must experience both. Once we interpret a stimulating event and it causes physical arousal, we must place a cognitive label on that arousal. Only then can we experience an emotion.