William James and the Theory of Emotion

William James, philosopher

Consider this scenario: a 6-year-old kid named Ben invites a friend, Zack, over to play. They go up to Ben’s room, where Ben has a big train set, and Zack grabs Ben’s favorite train and looks at it, causing Ben to suddenly burst out in tears. His Mom comes rushing in, takes the train from Zack, and comforts Ben until he calms down.

Ben’s reaction is so extreme that it worries his mother, and from that time on, whenever a new friend comes to visit she makes a point of whispering to them first, “Be careful not to touch his toys. It gets him upset.” This seems to head off any future disasters, and the incident is gradually forgotten.

Simple story, simple resolution — right? But now let’s bring in a favorite philosopher, the distinguished William James, to analyze the situation. James, a highly original and important American thinker who happened to be the older brother of novelist Henry James, had a peculiar theory of emotion. According to James, we don’t smile because we feel happy or cry because we feel sad. The physical reaction happens first, the philosopher said, and it’s more correct to say we feel happy because we smile, or we feel sad because we cry.

This seems like a strange formulation, and I considered it highly dubious when I first heard it many years ago. It took a long time before I started realizing that James is right. If you closely observe your own emotional reactions during an average day, you may find evidence to support this. When affected by an outside stimulus, you are not likely to evaluate the stimulus coolly and rationally and then formulate a physical reaction. Rather, you are an audience to your emotional/physical reactions. You watch them happen. And that, William James said, is how we discover how we’re feeling.

Of course, this begs the question of what exactly “we” are to begin with, but that’s a different tangent. James covers that too.

I’m not sure if this explanation does the philosophy of William James justice, but the wikipedia article linked above has a good section about James’ theory of emotion (“you don’t run from a bear because you’re afraid; you’re afraid because you run from a bear”).

Let’s relate this to Ben and Zack, and analyze exactly what happened in the bedroom when Zack touched his train. Ben’s initial reaction was one of surprise. He’d never had a friend come up to his bedroom before, and it simply never occurred to him that any other kid would touch his beloved train set. The first physical reaction was a loud gasp when he saw Zack reach out and grab his train.

This was followed by a second reaction, a sudden flush of embarrassment, because Ben realized that Zack had heard him gasp, and he didn’t have any way to explain why he had gasped (he had never experienced anything like this before). The potent combination of surprise and embarrassment adds up to a complete crying breakdown.

The irony is that Ben truly didn’t mind that Zack touched his train set. He was flattered that another kid would admire his trains. He never experienced a pang of sadness or protectiveness towards his train set — he simply cried after a blast of surprise and embarrassment. Once his mother started whispering to his friends and relatives that Ben didn’t like his stuff touched, this became a self-fulfilling fact, which is sad because Ben is naturally the very model of generosity.

If we could begin, if we could even begin to comprehend the undercurrents of emotion that propel and control us, we would be able to make better decisions, and solve problems more easily as well. William James’ theory of emotion is only one of the pillars of this remarkable man’s thought; and I’d like to try to explore some of his other philosophies in future articles here. Why? I don’t know — it makes me smile, which is how I know I like it.

18 Responses

  1. The Will to Believe by
    The Will to Believe by William James

    The Will to Believe by William James: If you believe something, e.g., religion, it becomes a reality for you.

    In James’ time, ordinary folks still hashed out what they believed and this seems to have been replaced by religious dogma or scientism in the USA, a bottom line worldview in East Asia, and for the very young everywhere, flavor of the week pop culture.

  2. nexusI believe it is his book

    I believe it is his book The Western Lands in which William S. Burroughs refers to “the monumental fraud of cause and effect.” This is fitting coming from Burroughs, whose visceral pleasures from drugs and sex and intellectual satisfaction from writing and learning came together and touched in a nexus that was bound to bring some expression to his face.

  3. You say, “In James’ time,
    You say, “In James’ time, ordinary folks still hashed out what they believed.” I think there were an equal number of people in James’ day who expressed beliefs based on fear, feelings of duty, or other ulterior motives (just like there are today).

  4. EmotionsI think it’s neither

    I think it’s neither that we run from the bear because we are afraid, nor that we are afraid because of our physical reaction — what we call emotion simply occurs, and its occurrence sets in motion a whole machinery of actions and reactions, in which not sequence matters but interplay.

    An emotion is a complexe experience of feelings, memories, expectations, physical and mental sensations, cognitive, behavioral and motivational changes, and more — a process of multitudes of stimuli and responses playing together and coming into effect, and thus causing a specific emotion.

    I don’t think that those components can be separated, in a sense that we can make out a certain sequence in their occurrence, or that such a sequence would even matter — but to be aware of our emotions not just being a single rigid block, a blockade that we must either run or endure blocking our way, but something that is made of parts and components and that we therefore can re-arrange and influence, can be very helpful in dealing with them. Understanding the various and different levels of our emotions can make it easier to live with them and to use them as tools and allies, instead of being prey of them or struggling against them.

    To find out whether the fear or the running come first, the tears or the sadness, the happiness or the smile is of less importance than to learn how to deal with these symptoms. And if you have ever experienced how walking buoyantly with winged steps and great strides can make you feel happy and elated, or how deliberate thinking of an excitement or pleasure can send hot rushs of anticipation through your guts, then you know that it works both ways.

    Stimulating an emotion with your mind can cause physical response. Intentionally causing bodily changes can evoke a emotion, sometimes even if your mind tells you otherwise. It is interesting to experiment with that – to put a smile on your face even though you feel frustrated, and observe your mood change; to memorize an embarassment or joy, and feel the warmth of shame rise in your chest, or feel a sensation of lightness and a smile crawl across your face. We can learn to be aware of what happens and how it happens and to experiment with it. We can have a way with our emotions — and they with us!

  5. Try this:Smile. When you
    Try this:


    When you smile, do you not feel happier?

  6. synaptic explique?Interesting
    synaptic explique?

    Interesting stuff, but I’ve got questions. Do people react the same to the same stimuli? What are tears of joy? When Martin King was shot, George Jefferson threw a tv through a store window – was he hurt, angry, sad, confused, livid, despondent, overwhelmed, contemptuous, defeated, enraged? Are not feelings a complex of emotions (or vice versa)? Or just neural chemistry? And what determines the synaptic preference? Fear, perhaps?

    Is a Freudian psychiatrist able to enjoy cheating on his wife with his secretary, or does he only consider this a compensation to his ego resulting from not being fulfilled in other areas? Can a surgeon enjoy sex with a young nurse in a closet, or does he only think of the physiological formulations that manifest themselves in sexual arousal? We need not psychoanalyze our every act, to be able to act right; lest we all be Zen Buddhists: “aha, I burned myself – hmm, pain; interesting, to be able to feel something for a change – not remarkable, but different, at least.” I’ve done that, thinking pychology less impactful than its older brother, philosophy. Still, the essential question is, if Bush is an evangelical, how does he explain dinosaurs?

  7. Well, Stokey, I think your
    Well, Stokey, I think your point in asking these question may be that this theory seems overly simplistic — is that what you’re getting at? If so, I’d say that, yes, any theory of emotion presented in 5 paragraphs on a blog will seem reductive — but that’s only the flaw of my presentation. James wrote many thick books about this subject, and could probably come up with reasonable answers to your questions, even if I’m not sure what his answers would be …

  8. No, I was not critiquing your
    No, I was not critiquing your presentation, which I find interesting food for thought. Just wanting further discussion as clearly your knowledge/education in these areas is far more extensive than mine. Mine is simply an offhand, first glance response (which always seems to unintentionally offend people.)

  9. Fear is the biggest
    Fear is the biggest motivator, followed by sex and money.
    I don’t know so much what was happening in James’ day because what’s been passed down is by those who could read and write but personally, with the people I’ve met and talked to, their resonse to that topic would be:

    “Who cares/ gives a s***?”

    I’d say: “I read and I do.”

    “Who the f*** are you”

    Most people I know now would ask: “How is knowing this going to add immediately to my revenue stream?”

  10. Okay, thanks for explaining.
    Okay, thanks for explaining. Possibly I am anticipating criticism from you because I am aware that any highly generalized formulation like this one is inherently flawed, because every generalization turns out to be false. But I do find James’ theory to be uniquely enlightening, for reasons that are hard to explain.

  11. I’m guessing people were the
    I’m guessing people were the same then as they are now …

    About The Will To Believe, Warren, this is probably my favorite James book. I’m planning to write about this one soon.

  12. I agree, Warren. Fear, sex,
    I agree, Warren. Fear, sex, and money are the big three. One could sum those up as “power” (freedom from fear & all the sex and money you want).

    Levi, I’d like to read what you have to say about The Will To Believe.

  13. Aren’t people more complex
    Aren’t people more complex than that? Although a parent’s reaction does guide our development and validate our reactions to stimuli, some people have learned to conquer those feelings. Unfortunately, just because we begin to recognize and identify those triggers, it doesn’t make them go away. For instance, I still squeal when I see a mouse. So did my mother. So did her mother. My Dad didn’t squeal, though. He has been brought up not to fear those things. He was a man so he was responsible for killing it. The same with certain bugs. Over time and experience, I learned not to fear certain bugs. That was something I had learned to adapt to. But I still squeal at mice.

    The reaction is to the over-thinking of it. Shakespeare wrote: “There is nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” Perhaps it is true that people cry first and feel sadness from the act of crying. But I knew that I had fear of the mouse first. That would set me to my reaction: squealing like a pig to slaughter. I didn’t squeal first. I feared seeing the damned thing which initiated my physical reaction of squealing.

    I think that everyone is governed by their own set of rules. Some are obliterated through the frequency of the occurence.

    That’s where our definition of ‘tolerance’ comes from. So with time, even though I still hated mice, I had to learn to exterminate them myself. (My last apartment was infested with them). Frequency = tolerance.

    As for complex emotions such as depression, it is not enough to say that crying creates the feeling. Depression doesn’t always spark that reaction. It can manifest itself into reactions like staying in bed all day or not wanting to participate in activities. Those actions by themselves do not make people feel depressed.

    I think it best not to overthink any of these emotions. As Popeye said, “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.” I like it that way.

  14. Sometimes, when I ride a
    Sometimes, when I ride a train at night, and I stare out of the window into the dark or into some ponderings or into oblivion, and my focus shifts and I catch my own reflection in the glass, I see myself smiling. And I realize that this smile smiles without me smiling it or even being aware of it, that it has just sneaked across my face without my noticing it while I had just let my thoughts drift away. And I don’t feel like wondering where it comes from, where it came from and why, but just begin to feel it nest.

  15. I wouldn’t call depression an
    I wouldn’t call depression an emotion. I’d call it mood, or emotional state, which is felt like an emotion is, but is more extended in duration and lacks the the immediate connection to its trigger. It may be influenced by external events, but it’s not a direct response to a stimulus and it does not necessarily move the organism to action; rather, it makes you perceive the world through the filter of your feelings, just like a good mood or any other emotional state would do.

  16. Emotion, causality, and
    Emotion, causality, and literature

    James attempts a causal theory of emotion. If we take a broad view of the term emotion (i.e. as meaning states of mind in general) we’re talking about the whole of psychology. Wouldn’t it be interesting to look at the historical development of psychology and the historical development of literature in parallel? For example, how does Stendhal’s theory of crystallization play out in his novels? How does Wm. James’ psychology relate to his brother’s fiction? How does Freud’s psychology relate to Ralph Ellison’s novels? And how does the nuero-psychology prevalent today relate to contemporary fiction? These are just examples off the top of my head. I’m sure someone’s written such a book. Can anyone point me to it?

    Whether or not James’ theory is accurate is to a certain extent beside the point. Taking a pragmatic view, the question is does it work for us. In the example of the child’s toy trains, we see that James’ theory could have a positive effect. By helping the parents to realize that the boy isn’t necessarily jealous of his toys, the theory might open the way to a happy future of sharing, etc.

    In any event, the story with its initial action, misinterpretation, and consequences, followed by the “correct” interpretation and the hope for a better tomorrow makes for pleasurable reading. For that reason, theories of emotion ought to appeal to writers of fiction. There’s something inherently dramatic, even novelistic, at the heart of psychology.

  17. I thinkthis is what they call
    I think

    this is what they call “crazy talk”.

  18. If you are what you do, then when you don’t, you aren’t.
    In order to get along with people, you must assume that what they say is true, and what it could be true of.
    When the mind is present, the world moves at the proper speed.

    Pop psychology quotes for the ages.

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