Developed by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion is the idea that an emotional response to a stimulus occurs simultaneously. This is the opposed to other theories of emotions which infer that they occur when only psychological arousal happens. Under the Cannon-Bard theory, the same patterns of emotional arousal can lead to different emotions and physical responses.
The classic example given when explaining this theory is of a woman who is walking through the woods. She happens to encounter a bear while walking on the trail. This causes her to begin feeling nervous. Her muscles tense up. She may begin to start trembling. Sweating might happen. Although not every single physical response may show at the exact same moment, the stimulus which begins the physical response occurs at the same time.
This creates an equation which the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion is able to follow. There is a stimulus, which is followed by an emotion, which is then followed by either a reaction or a response. Here are some more examples that could be applied to this theory.
John has a concert he is going to be playing in tonight. It’s his first concert. The idea of playing before a large group of people has him feeling nervous. His stomach feels squeamish. His head starts to hurt a little bit. His breathing becomes a little bit heavier. Yet he knows that he needs to play in the concert in order to get a good grade in Band, so he gets dressed.
Carol sees her wedding dress for the first time. She instantly feels a tear begin to well up in her eye. Her heart starts to beat faster. Her palms are starting to feel very sweaty. She also feels a little worried because she doesn’t know if she can actually afford this dress. Yet because seeing it makes her feel happy, she decides to try it on to see just how good she looks while wearing it.
Mia wakes up to discover that one of her fish in her aquarium has died. She’s 7 and this is the first time one of her pets has died. She suddenly feels this pain in her stomach like nothing she’s ever had before. It has become difficult for her to breathe. The whole world seems to be spinning out of control. This causes her to run out of her room, just as fast as her feet can move, as her whole body begins to sob uncontrollably.
Harold just submitted his work project to his boss. It was a project that had taken 6 months to complete. His boss looks at the work, then looks at Harold, and says, “You need to start this over from the very beginning.” Harold’s stomach suddenly drops. There’s a weight that has been placed on his chest. All of the hopes he’d had about what might happen because of his hard work are suddenly gone. So Harold says, “Yes sir.” Then backs slowly out of the office and lightly closes the door.
Harold just submitted his work project to his boss. It was a project that had taken 6 months to complete. His boss looks at the work, then looks at Harold, and says, “You need to start this over from the very beginning.” Harold suddenly feels his cheeks get very hot. His forehead becomes very sweaty. He feels his chest and abdomen clench up. His eyebrows furrow. “I will not!” Harold yells at his boss. He leaves the office in a rush, slamming the door as hard as he can behind him. Pictures on the wall clatter down.
What Makes the Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion Unique?
What is unique about the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion is that the same stimulus can cause two very different emotional reactions (see examples #4 and #5 above). Even in the classic example of the woman and the bear, some people might decide to become aggressive with the bear. Some people might become overwhelmingly sad.
Because different emotional responses may occur, a different response is also likely to occur after the emotion has been triggered by a stimulus. This is why the simultaneous nature of the physiological and emotional changes is an important part of this theory.
Without a physical response at the same time, we could theoretically all have the same response to any situation we encounter – no matter what the emotion being experienced happened to be.