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Richard S. Lazarus (March 3, 1922 – November 24, 2002) was an American psychologist who began rising to prominence in the 1960s, when behaviorists like B. F. Skinner held sway over psychology and explanations for human behavior were often pared down to rudimentary motives like reward and punishment. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Lazarus as the 80th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.
He was well renowned for his theory of cognitive-mediational theory within emotion.
During the 1970s, Lazarus worked with PhD student Susan Folkman studying stress and coping. In her doctoral thesis, Folkman coined the terms "problem-focused coping" and "emotion-focused coping." Lazarus and Folkman co-authored a book called "Stress, Appraisal and Coping" in 1984, which worked through the theory of psychological stress, using concepts of Cognitive appraisal and coping. In this book, they were the first to make the distinction between "problem-focused coping" and "emotion-focused coping" which could result in consequences for both physical and mental health. They described "emotion-focused coping" as dealing with stress by regulating one's emotions and "problem-focused coping" as "directly changing the elements of the stressful situation".
Lazarus advocated the importance of emotion, especially what he described as the marriage between emotion and thought. His views put him at odds not only with behaviorism but also with a movement that began toward the end of his career: attempts to explain all human behavior by looking at the structure of the brain. He was very opposed to reductionist approaches to understanding human behavior.
Lazarus' cognitive-mediational theory maintained that the interaction between emotion-eliciting conditions and coping processes affect the cognitions that drive emotional reactions. For example, the degree of a perceived threat affects an individual's emotional and psychological response to such life events in the future. At the heart of Lazarus's theory was what he called appraisal. Before emotion occurs, he argued, people make an automatic, often unconscious, assessment of what is happening and what it may mean for them or those they care about. From that perspective, emotion becomes not just rational but a necessary component of survival. According to Lazarus, there are two kinds of appraisal: primary appraisal, which is aimed at establishing the significance of an event's meaning to the organism; and, secondary appraisal, which assesses the ability of the organism to cope with the consequences of the event.
Lazarus worked on topics such as hope and gratitude. He was perhaps best known for his work on coping, gaining attention for studies that showed that patients who engaged in denial about the seriousness of their situation did better than those who were more "realistic." He also found that stress often had less to do with a person's actual situation than with how the person perceived the strength of his own resources.
Lazarus (1991) defines emotions according to 'core relational themes' which are intuitive summaries of the 'moral appraisals' (e.g. of relevance, goal conduciveness) involved in different emotions. These themes help define both the function and eliciting conditions of the emotion. They include:
- Anger - a demeaning offense against me and mine.
- Fear - facing an immediate, concrete, and overwhelming physical danger.
- Sadness - having experienced an irrevocable loss.
- Disgust - taking in or being too close to an indigestible object or idea (metaphorically speaking).
- Happiness - making reasonable progress toward the realization of a goal.
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