William James - Biological Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

William James
Biological Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1842, New York City, New York


DIED 1910, Tamworth, New Hampshire


Educated at Harvard University



William James’s Principles of Psychology, years in the writing, is a 1,300-page blockbuster of a book, a panoramic journey through all aspects of psychology. In 1890, when it was published, it made such an authoritative splash that it was sometimes just referred to as the James (a later, briefer version came to be called the Jimmy).

William James had so many big ideas, and his impact on the field of psychology has been so vast and enduring, that it’s hard to summarize the ways in which he was most influential. What we’ll do here is consolidate his most noteworthy theories into three domains: his thoughts about habits, his theory of consciousness, and his beliefs about the nature of emotion.

In his writings about how habits develop, James came as close as he ever would to sounding like a behaviorist. He believed in free will, but he also hypothesized that a habit leaves an anatomical trace within the brain, creating a pathway that will become more and more entrenched as time goes by. This pathway serves, in effect, as a physiological way to keep someone in a rut and ever more likely to retain the habit. Nevertheless, James also saw habits as playing a role in preventing societal chaos, and as delivering a not-so-subtle kick in the rump to people who need motivation to do things that are sometimes difficult. These views are well in line with the school of functionalism, and indeed James is considered to have advanced that particular school.

The notion of the stream of consciousness, taken directly from Principles of Psychology, represents a departure from the structuralist view that thoughts can be individually and meaningfully broken down into their constituent elements. Rather, James saw thoughts as a constantly changing river, consistently without gaps and irreducible to its elemental components. He also wrote of consciousness as an individual matter—your thoughts are yours, and my thoughts are mine. James believed that consciousness could be selective (meaning that sometimes we pay attention to parts of things and sometimes we attend to wholes), and that it is purposeful. These ideas about consciousness, taken together, paint a picture much different from anything that had been theorized before. The notion of consciousness as running commentary (even in the literal sense, because we often speak our train of thought), invulnerable to easy division or categorization, is one that still has loyal adherents today.

William James also changed the direction of popular thought through the James—Lange theory of emotion, named for himself and the Danish physician Carl Georg Lange. This theory posits the exact opposite of the era’s commonly held belief that emotion precedes physiological response; indeed, the James—Lange theory proposes that emotion is a response to the experience of a physical sensation. For example, this theory says, when you see a rabid dog barreling toward you, it is not that first you feel scared, and that then you tremble and your heart races; rather, you see the dog, you tremble and your heart races, and only then do you feel scared. Since the time when it was first proposed, this theory has attracted significant challenges. Modern theorists accept it as partly explaining a possible relationship between physical sensation and emotion, but today other pieces of information are also seen as affecting emotional assessments of situations, and subjective emotional responses are understood as also sometimes causing physiological reactions.


William James’s influence was so far-reaching that he is often considered to have been the first true psychologist. Functionalism, cognitive psychology, and Gestalt psychology are directly rooted in James’s theories, as is the pragmatist school of philosophical thought. The James—Lange theory of emotion, although it’s accepted today only with modifications, underlies substantial modern research on the nature of physical arousal and its role in cognition and emotion.


If you weren’t in the habit of setting an alarm to get up in the morning for work, and if other people also didn’t have that habit, then surely modern society would not run as smoothly as it does. We often think of habits in negative terms, but daily rituals like stopping at red lights and putting on clothes can be considered positive habits. And when we think of William James’s relevance to modern life, we immediately think of his ideas about how to create new, positive habits.

James believed that in order to eliminate a negative habit (which he saw as a neural pathway, a literal rut in the brain) and chart a new course, it is necessary to start with as strong and decisive an initiative as possible. For example, if you want to cut out carbs, then start by clearing your pantry, and declare your intention loudly and clearly on Facebook. And you’d better heed James’s beliefs about consistency, too—deviating from your new pattern too early can undo a ton of work. If you’ve ever strung together days of sobriety or seen your exercise routine completely undone by a vacation, then you know that one day’s fall off the wagon can feel as if it’s done more to destroy your new positive habit than the six months of practice you put in to establish it.


And though, as we’ve seen, the James—Lange theory of emotion is not without its detractors, the possibility of its relevance persists. For example, have you ever drunk coffee that was particularly strong and then started to feel jittery, anxious, and worried? How long did it take you to realize that it was just the caffeine talking? To put this another way, your physical symptoms led you to believe that you must be on edge, but when you remembered having drunk that cup of strong coffee, you probably felt more comfortable. Deciding to smile, and then discovering that you actually feel happy; adopting powerful body language, and then feeling more confident; faking it till you make it—these are all positive examples of the James—Lange theory in action. As for negative examples, what better authority do we have than people who suffer panic attacks? It doesn’t matter that the cause of a palpitating heart may be something completely undramatic, such as having eaten spicy food or walked briskly upstairs. The person whose heart is pounding interprets that sensation as threatening and frightening (we call this an interoceptive sensation). And when the physiological sensation starts, the negative emotions follow—a living, contemporary, very personal validation of the James—Lange theory.