Cognitive appraisal

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Cognitive appraisal is the personal interpretation of a situation; it is how an individual views a situation. "Appraisals refer to direct, immediate, and intuitive evaluations made on the environment in reference to personal well-being." They are "evaluative frameworks that people utilize to make sense of events."[1] Appraisals provide a glimpse of how people subjectively experience their environments and are strong correlates of emotions.[2]

Cognitive appraisal is regarded by some sport psychologists as an important component of burnout. The perception of a situation can be the cause of a negative psychological reaction, rather than the situation itself. An athlete who loses a string of competitions can view it positively as a challenge and an opportunity to come back from adversity, or view it negatively as evidence that he or she will never be a successful competitor.

Cognitive appraisals determine if an event will be perceived as stressful. When distress is high, some individuals may be motivated to enter psychotherapy, and some psychotherapists may explicitly target cognitive appraisals when providing treatment. Per Dienes, Torres-Harding, Reinecke, Freeman, and Sauer (2011), “cognitive therapies . . . focus on an individual’s beliefs about the self, the world, and the future. The sources of pathology, and therefore the targets of therapy, are thoughts – maladaptive cognitions – that are frequently automatic and ingrained”.[3] When maladaptive cognitive appraisals are thought to cause or maintain distress, impairment, or psychopathology, therapists may assist clients to question the evidence related to an appraisal, notice when irrational fantasies about potential consequences of some situation are linked to the experience of distress or impairment, and begin to respond to these situations in a more rational manner.[3]

Appraisal in Emotion[edit]

Patterns of emotion have long been researched with an interest in describing emotional experiences in terms of underlying dimensions. Traditionally theorists have only looked into two dimensions, pleasantness and arousal. With the review of two theorists, Roseman [4] and Scherer,[5] there has been a new proposal of a now eight cognitive appraisal dimensions to distinguish emotional understanding. “Most people refer to emotions in categorical terms: ‘I was scared’ or ‘I was sad’.” [6] Most categorical theorists explain emotions as unstructured collections of distinct beings and, therefore, fail to capture the similarities and differences of emotions. A dimensional view of emotions is not incompatible with a categorical view. “Interrelations among emotions are not new. In 1896 Wundt [7] proposed a three-dimensional structure of emotions, and in 1941 Schlosber [8] began a series of investigations into the structural interrelations among emotions.” [6][9] Pleasantness and level of activation (or arousal) are the only dimensions that have been found consistently across studies.
There have been studies done on categorical and dimensional factors, but a third group of theorists identify with neither approach. They argue that emotional differences must undeniably involve differences in the way an organism appraises its environment.[10] The descriptions of the individual emotions demonstrate that each emotion is characterized by a unique pattern of cognitive appraisals. Theorists must take into consideration all three patterns and the role that each cognitive appraisal (dimension, categorical or environmental) plays in distinguishing among emotions.

Factors in appraisal[edit]

  • Categorical: working from a list of different emotions, theorists could ask ‘what is unique about the feeling of anger?’ and ‘How is anger different from fear?'[11]
  • Dimensional: huge range of emotions to ascribe unique meaning to each emotional state that people might find themselves in.[12][13]
    Three main dimensions
  1.Valence: positive vs. negative
  2.Activation: aroused vs. relaxed
  3.Power: dominant vs. submissive
  • Environmental: emotion is closely associated with the organism's appraisal of its environment, and that these dimensions will help us to understand the nature of distinct emotional states and their interrelations.[4][5][10]
  • Vulnerability: When things of value are threatened
  • Person variables: Commitments, beliefs
  • Situation variables: Novelty, predictability, event uncertainty, imminence, duration, temporal uncertainty, timing in relation to life cycle, ambiguity

Extent of Cognitive Appraisals[edit]

  • Seen as such an immediate, automatic evaluation that it cannot be called a cognitive evaluation at all, but rather precedes cognition[14]
  • Function of two appraisals (of what one wants in relation to what one has)[15]
  • First appraisal one makes is whether to attend to a stimulus, ignore it or avoid it[13]
  • A person must quickly evaluate their ability to cope with the situation and that this evaluation will contribute to the subjective feeling[13]
  • Unpredictable situation demands more of our attention than a predictable one[16]
Perceived obstacles
  • Additional complications
  • Allows a feeling of pleasure on encountering an obstacle
    • Sports, poetry, intellectual puzzles
  • Represents an appraisal of whether the good or bad outcome is deserved or underserved[4]
  • Extent to which oneself, or someone or something else, is responsible for bringing about the event that arouses emotions and the legitimacy or fairness of the outcome
Anticipated effort
  • Level of activation, one of the universally found dimensions
  • Concept of fight or flight, a person anticipates having to do something, to expend efforts[17]
  • Other situations, relax, enjoy or withdraw quietly

Appraisal rebound effects[edit]

The term appraisal rebound effects refers to the stronger activation of an appraisal as a result of trying to suppress it. At times appraisal rebounds effects can continue psychopathological symptoms. An example of this can be when patients with stress try to remove negative thoughts from their mind but fail to do so and observe the disorder symptoms appearing on the same scale or even greater at times.
Wegner hypothesizes that suppressing appraisals involve two mechanisms. The first is the conscious suppression of the appraisal and seeking distractors to avoid appraisal. The second mechanism is the unconscious process of searching for the appraisal, and when finding one, it alerts the conscious mechanism to find more distractors. This process requires too much cognitive resources, and so the distractors often fail, and the appraisal can become hyperaccessible, perpetuating the appraisal. Chronic appraisals are related to the chronic emotions of individuals since the way they chronically perceive situations affect their emotions. When individuals who tend to appraise situations in negative ways try to suppress the appraisal, they will be more likely to appraise another event negatively as well, and perpetuate their negative emotions.[1]

Appraisal view of stress[edit]

The appraisal view of stress was developed by Richard Lazarus. He suggested that an individual's stress level is directly affected by their cognitive appraisal of the event that triggers the stress.
There are two stages of cognitive appraisal:

Stage 1

Primary appraisals. The initial evaluation of the situation comprises an assessment of the threat in the present situation.
Three kinds can be distinguished:

  • Irrelevant
  • Benign-positive
  • Stressful - harm or loss, threat, challenge

When an event is perceived as negative in the primary appraisal process, the individual moves to stage 2.

Stage 2

Evaluation of the individual's ability to cope with a situation, and of whether or not the individual has the materials to deal with the stimulus causing the stress. Secondary appraisal interacts with the primary appraisal to determine the emotional reaction to event.

This further appraisal is made in regard to:

  • Harm: The assessment of the damage that the event has already caused.
  • Threat: Possible future damage that the event may cause.
  • Challenge: The potential to overcome and even profit from the event.

During stage 2, if the individual finds that they do not have the materials to cope with the stimulus causing stress, it will determine the level of stress that is experienced. An example of this would be the reaction to snakes, which shows a great variation. A harmless garter snake might cause fear in some people and nothing in others.

Afterward, reappraisals occur: a continuous re-evaluation of the situation based on new information.

Cognitive responses to stress include beliefs

  • What causes stress?
  • Can it be controlled?
  • How harmful is it?

Some responses to stress are a conscious effort to cope with the stress.[18]

Example in sport[edit]

Steve Williams suggests top professional golfers do not morally judge a shot after it comes to rest. According to Williams:[19]

"In the top golfers' eyes all shots are equal, and none is more equal that the others --- something that fits nicely into my native Kiwi egalitarianism. And since all golf shots are equal,there's no point in making value judgements on them. The top golfers just gather the data, and deliberately suppress any tendency to be either encouraged or discouraged by it. It's just data: it doesn't have a moral value."

This statement suggest that top athlete's use cognitive appraisal to devalue a particular situation or outcome neither judging it being good or bad. A situation or in this case, a singular golf shot, is what it is and nothing else. In professional golf, if the player were to allow a previous shot to dictate emotional levels, that player would experience a roller coaster of emotions on every hole since no shot, other than a hole in one, is considered perfect. By removing emotion and not placing a judgmental value on performance, like a particulate golf shot, the athlete is not held hostage psychologically by up and down swings in athletic performance or outcomes that sometimes are out of the athlete's control.


  1. ^ a b Yap, Andy J.; Tong, Eddle M. W. (September 2009), "The Appraisal Rebound Effect: Cognitive Appraisals on the Rebound", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (9): 195–221, doi:10.1177/0146167209338073 
  2. ^ Yap A. and Tong E.M.W. 2009. The Appraisal Rebound Effect: Cognitive Appraisals on the Rebound. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 35(9): 1208-1219
  3. ^ a b Dienes, K. A.; Torres-Harding, S.; Reinecke, M. A.; Freeman, A.; Sauer, A. (2011). Messer, S. B.; Gurman, A. S., eds. Essential Psychotherapies: Theory and Practice (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press. pp. 143–160. 
  4. ^ a b c Roseman, I. (1984). Cognitive determinants of emotions: A structural theory. In P. Shaver (Ed.), Review of personality and social psychology: Vol.5. Emotions, relationships, and health (pp. 11-36). Beverly Hills: Sage.
  5. ^ a b Scherer, K. R. (1982). Emotion as process: Function, origin and regulation. Social Science Information, 21, 555-570.
  6. ^ a b Ellsworth, Phoebe C., Smith, Craig A. Patterns of cognitive appraisal in emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 48(4), Apr 1985, 813-838. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.48.4.813
  7. ^ Wundt, W . (1897). Outlines of psychology (C. H. Judd, Trans.). Leipzig: Wilhelm Englemann. (Original work published 1896)
  8. ^ Schlosberg, H. (1941). A scale of the judgment of facial expressions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 29, 497-510.
  9. ^ Engen, X, Levy, N., & Schlosberg, H. (1958). The dimensional analysis of a new series of facial expressions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 55, 454- 458
  10. ^ a b Arnold, M. B. (1960). Emotion and personality (2 Vols.). New York: Columbia University Press.
  11. ^ Izard, C. E. (1977). Human emotions. New York: Plenum.
  12. ^ Block, J. (1957). Studies in the phenomenology of emotions. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 54, 358-363.
  13. ^ a b c McHugo, G. J., Smith, C. A., & Lanzetta, J. T. (1982). The structure of self-reports of emotional responses to film segments. Motivation and Emotion, 6, 365-385.
  14. ^ Zajonc, R. B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist, 35, 151-175.
  15. ^ Roseman, I. (1984). Cognitive determinants of emotions: A structural theory. In P. Shaver (Ed.), Review of personality and social psychology: Vol.5. Emotions, relationships, and health (pp. 11-36). Beverly Hills: Sage
  16. ^ Scherer, K. R. (1982). Emotion as process: Function, origin and regulation. Social Science Information, 21, 555-570
  17. ^ Cannon, W. B. (1929). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear, and rage (2nd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century.
  18. ^ pg 529 of Psychology the Science of Behavior/Neil R. Carlson et al. -4th Canadian ed. This seems to be the reference for the entire section "Appraisal view of stress" (26-09-2012)
  19. ^ Steve Williams, Hugh De Lacy. Golf at the Top with Steve Williams: Tips and Techniques from the Caddy to Raymond Floyd, Greg Norman, and Tiger Woods, Ulysses Press, (2006) - ISBN 1-56975-527-2