Schachter and Singer

The basic proposal of the Schachter and Singer (1962) theory was that emotion involved the cognitive interpretation of a state of bodily arousal (see Figure 3.12). This state of arousal was considered to be a general one, in that the same arousal underpinned both positive and negative emotions: the crucial determinant for the type of emotion experienced was how the individual explained the state of arousal. To quote from Schachter and Singer:

Precisely the same state of physiological arousal could be labelled "joy" or "fury" or "jealousy" or any of a great diversity of emotional labels depending on the cognitive aspects of the situation. (1962, p. 398)

In addition, the cognitive interpretation could be based on prior knowledge of a situation, for example an agoraphobic individual who interprets effects such as rapid breathing during exercise to be anxiety. Alternatively, in situations in which individuals are unclear about why they are aroused, the interpretation may be based on external cues provided by another person; the fact that people can become excessively euphoric or excessively morose while imbibing alcohol illustrates this combination of physiological arousal (at least initially) and attribution based on external cues.


(Including situational Information)

Figure 3.12 The theory tested by Schachter and Singer (1962).

In the actual study carried out by Schachter and Singer (1962), epinephrine (adrenaline) was used to provide the physiological arousal. The participants in the study were told that they were to be injected with a vitamin compound called "Suproxin" and that they were to carry out visual tasks. In fact, half of the participants were injected with epinephrine and the other half with a saline placebo. Some of the epinephrine participants were then informed of its true effects (e.g., increased heart rate and respiration rate), some were misinformed of its effects (told that their feet would feel numb, they would itch, and that they would experience headaches), and some were not told anything. The placebo group were also not told anything. Each participant was then left in a room with one of two stooges, although unknown to the participant they were observed from behind a one-way mirror. One stooge behaved in a euphoric way, for example he played "basketball" with rolled-up paper, made paper aeroplanes, and found hula hoops and began playing with them. The other stooge behaved in an angry way; in this condition the participant and the stooge were each asked to fill in a lengthy questionnaire that began innocuously but became increasingly personal and asked questions such as "Who in your family doesn't wash?", "Who needs psychiatric care?", "How many times per week do you have sex?" and, most insulting of all apparently, "How many affairs has your mother had?". The stooge became increasingly angry as he progressed through these questions, finally ripping up the questionnaire and storming out of the room. The rest is now history.

The results from Schachter and Singer's (1962) study gave support to the arousal-interpretation proposal, although a careful re-examination of the original study shows that in the process of mythologisation the results are not as clear-cut as later textbook accounts would have us believe (see Table 3.3). Mythologised accounts tell us correctly that in the euphoria condition, the epinephrine-misinformed and the epinephrine-ignorant groups were more euphoric than the epinephrine-informed group, as predicted by the theory. However, the placebo euphoric group were intermediate and did not differ from any of the epinephrine groups on either the self-report or the behavioural measures. Furthermore, in the anger condition, there were no significant differences between any of the groups on the self-report measures, the closest to significance being the comparison between the epinephrine-informed and the epinephrine-ignorant groups (p = 0.08). Only on the behavioural measure did the epinephrine-ignorant group score significantly higher than the epinephrine-informed and the placebo groups (the epinephrine-misinformed condition was not run in the anger condition, for reasons that were not very convincing).

Table 3.3 Summary of the results from Schachter and Singer (1962)



Misinformed = Ignorant > Informed


(i) Euphoria

Placebo group no differences from any epinephrine group

(ii) Anger

No differences on self-report between groups

We suggest, therefore, that even within the original classic study there were a sufficient number of problematic findings to mean that the theory would have to be revised. Nevertheless, subsequent studies did provide qualified support for some of the proposals, for example that unattributed arousal could under some circumstances be influenced by social factors, though not to the degree suggested by the theory (e.g., Reisenzein, 1983). More recent evidence suggests that the concept of an undif-ferentiated arousal common to all emotions is incorrect, and that there are detectable differences between physiological and bodily characteristics of different emotions (e.g., Ekman, 1992; LeDoux, 2000; see above). In addition, the fact that Schachter and Singer limit cognitive interpretation to a minor support role, that of simply labelling the aroused state, provides a simplistic and inadequate cognitive basis in comparison to the lead roles that cognition has been given in more recent appraisal theories and in the philosophical theories that we considered in Chapter 2.

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