Stanley Schachter: Developer of the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion

Stanley Schachter is considered one of the most important social psychologists of all time, especially for his great contributions to the understanding of emotions. In the following article, you can discover about his life and work.
Stanley Schachter: Developer of the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 03 May, 2023

Stanley Schachter was an American psychologist who became famous for his contributions to the theory of emotions. In fact, he was listed as the most influential social psychologist of his time. Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, he’s the seventh most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

Schachter’s most relevant contribution was the two-factor theory of emotion. He developed this concept with his colleague, Jerome Singer. He also worked on a number of different topics. For example, obesity, birth order, group dynamics, smoking, and stock investors. His main work (along with Jerome Singer) was “Cognitive, Social, and Physiological Determinants of Emotional State”, written in 1962.

Schachter was an extraordinary experimental researcher. He also introduced the expression bubba psychology or grandmother’s psychology to explain interpretations of behavior based on common sense.

“…given a state of sympathetic arousal, for which no immediately appropriate explanation is available, human subjects can be easily manipulated into states of euphoria, anger, or amusement.”

-Stanley Schachter-

The life of Stanley Schachter

Stanley Schachter was born on April 15, 1922, in Flushing, New York. His family was Jewish. They moved to the United States from Romania shortly before his birth. From a really young age, he showed enormous intellectual curiosity and had a great desire to learn. After finishing high school, he enrolled at Yale University to study art history.

He finished his degree in 1942. He specialized in psychology, thus concretizing his interest in social problems. At the time, World War II was in full swing and Schachter was no stranger to general upheaval.

Once he finished his master’s degree, Schachter decided to enlist in the United States Army. By this time, they had entered the war. In the military forces, he studied the visual problems of pilots.  He worked at the Biophysics Division of the Aero-Medical Laboratory of Wright Field in Riverside, Ohio.

Schachter concluded his stint in the US Army in 1946. By this time, social psychology had won him over.

You also might like to read The Main Theories of Emotions

A life dedicated to research

Stanley Schachter began a research doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was guided by Kurt Lewin, from whom he obtained knowledge about group behavior and social psychology in general.

This was an extremely enriching stage for him. However, it only lasted a year, as Lewin died and his students were, in effect, ‘orphaned’. But, Schacter had another lucky encounter. This time it was with Leon Festinger, who ended up being his mentor. He finally finished his doctorate in 1949.

Immediately, he was hired by the University of Minnesota as an assistant professor in the Laboratory for Research of Social Relations. Five years later, he was promoted to associate professor. He obtained the title of full professor in 1958, four years later. During this time he’d had the opportunity to study social behavior. He specialized in studying the influence of the group on the individual.

In 1961, Stanley Schachter became Professor of Psychology at Columbia University. He remained at the institution until 1992. In fact, this was the most prolific stage of his entire career. In 1967, he married Sophia Duckworth and they had a son in 1969.


Schachter and the two-factor theory of emotion

Schacter’s main contribution to the field of psychology was the two-factor theory of emotion. It proposes that emotion is based on two variables: cognitive labels and physiological arousal. Therefore, it suggests that emotion isn’t simply an automatic response to a situation, but involves the cognitive interpretation of physiological sensations in the body.

  • The cognitive label refers to the interpretation or evaluation made of the physiological sensations derived from an emotional situation. For example, interpreting the rapid heartbeat as fear and understanding that it’s a threatening situation. On the other hand, it’s also possible to interpret it as excitement and assume it to be the feeling of surprise.
  • Physiological arousal refers to changes in the physiological activity of the body that occur during an emotional experience. For instance, the response of the autonomic nervous system, release of stress hormones, increased heart rate, and dilated pupils.

According to this theory, emotion is the result of the interaction between the cognitive label and physiological arousal. It claims that cognitive interpretations of physiological sensations influence how we experience and emotionally label situations.

One of the contributions
One of the topics Schachter studied during his career was group psychology.

You might be interested to read Do You Know the Functions of Emotions?

A prolific psychologist

Stanley Schachter researched for practically all of his life. Sadly, on retiring from teaching, he received the devastating health diagnosis of colon cancer.

After several years of struggling with the illness, he died at home in New York on June 7, 1997. His name isn’t really well known among the general public. However, he marked several important milestones in the field of psychology. That’s why he’s considered to be one of the greatest psychologists of all time.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.