According to a number of emotion scholars, cognitive appraisal is crucial to the experience of an emotion.
Appraisal is an interpretation of a situation and an evaluation of its implication for one’s well-being.
American psychologist Magda ArnoldOpens in new window clearly articulated the appraisal concept in her 1960 book Emotion and Personality.
Following the publication of her book, the discussion of appraisal among scholars intensified, and this discussion led to further development of the concept.
According to ArnoldOpens in new window, when a situation occurs, people immediately assess the situation as either potentially harmful or potentially beneficial. In her theory, this appraisal process occurs unconsciously and results in a “felt tendency” toward those stimuli/situations that are appraised as good and away from those that are appraised as bad. The felt tendency is an emotional feeling that is experienced consciously.
In 1893, American psychologist William JamesOpens in new window (James-Lange theoryOpens in new window) had asserted much of what Arnold said, in particular, stating that there is an early, unconscious assessment of a situation as good or bad. According to James, through some intervening processes, a conscious, subjective feeling results. The James-Lange theory focused more on the relationship between physiological response of the body and emotional feeling, rather than the relationship between cognition (appraisal) and feeling, which Magda emphasized.
A number of emotion researchers, including American psychologist Richard LazarusOpens in new window, adopted the appraisal concept. Lazarus applied appraisal to his stress and coping theory, as discussed in his 1966 book Psychological Stress and the Coping Process.
Lazarus modified Arnold’s concept, emphasizing that appraisals can be either unconscious or conscious. He and his colleagues conducted a number of studies that showed that appraisals can play a causal role in emotional feelings. For instance, in one study (Speisman, Lazarus, Mordkoff, & Division, 1964), research participants watched a graphic film episode of a circumcision ritual among teenage aboriginal boys in Australia.
Participants were assigned to one of three research conditions. One group, while watching the film, listened to a sound track that emphasized in detail the gruesome aspects of the circumcision, while the second and third groups heard voice-overs that either intellectualized or minimized the circumcision.
Lazarus measured autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses in all groups and found that those in the first group had stronger ANS responses than the second group, indicating greater stress. Lazarus argued that the different sound tracks caused participants to have different appraisals about the situation, and the different appraisals produced different feelings.
Appraisal theory remains a leading theory in the understanding of the emotion process. However, some scholars have identified what they perceive as weaknesses or limitations of the theory. For instance, Kalat and Shiota (2007) point out that cognition can certainly occur after an emotional feeling rather than the other way around.
For example, sometimes people have sudden angry outbursts, perhaps yelling at a person in an impulsive manner. In this case, the person may not have known exactly why he yelled and may have to come up with a reason (perhaps a rationalization) later, for example, he yelled at the person because the person is always self-centered (and he was reminded of that in the moment).
In sum, Kalat and Shiota suggest that the basic identification of good or bad usually occurs very quickly, usually followed by an emotional feeling, but in some situations that emotional feeling may come first. Additionally, some (e.g., LeDoux, 1996) argue that the appraisal theories are accurate in many ways but fall short because they have led to a bias in the field: too much emphasis on cognition as an explanation for emotion.
- Arnold, M.B. (1960). Emotion and personality. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Kalat, J. W., & Shiota, M.N. (2007). Emotion. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Lazarus, R.S. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Touchstone.
- Speisman, J., Lazarus, R., Mordkoff, A., & Davison, L. (1964). Experimental reduction of stress based on ego-defense theory. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 68, 367 – 380.