A Process Model of Appraisal

Head Wheel

Recently I’ve been looking at
the causes of emotions as suggested by appraisal theory. Very briefly, this
theory posits that our emotions are generated through an evaluation of
particular types of information that are relevant to us. But what does
‘evaluation’ mean and how does this occur?
It’s quite clear that
sometimes these evaluations or appraisals of both our own state, and that of
the outside world, occur very quickly. One of the reasons appraisal theory has
been criticised is for failing to explain how these lightning fast evaluations
can occur. After all, the theory might be read as implying that we have to
think consciously about every appraisal, when this often isn’t either necessary
or even possible. Emotional changes that appear to have no apparent (conscious)
cause, or that occur in the blink of an eye, are familiar to all of us. If so,
how can appraisal theories hope to explain these phenomenon?
The answer lies in the
construction of a process model of appraisal. Smith and Kirby (2001) have
presented just such a process model which attempts to explain these phenomena.
At its heart is a split between two modes of emotional processing:

  • Associative processing: a
    fast, parallel processing mode characterised by spreading activation based on
    memory. This type of processing occurs outside focal awareness.
  • Reasoning: a slow, serial type
    of processing that occurs within focal awareness and requires an active effort.
For those of you familiar with
cognitive psychology this will be a familiar dichotomy.
The diagram below shows all
the components of the model with the line marked ‘reasoning’ representing the
slow, serial processing. All the other connections rely on associative
processing and occur outside focal awareness (Smith & Kirby, 2001, p. 130).
Appraisal Process Model
Smith and Kirby (2001) point
out some important features of their model:

  • From the diagram it can be
    seen that appraisals come from three sources: the contents of focal awareness,
    perceived stimuli and associatively activated representations.
  • ‘Appraisal detectors’ then
    integrate this information producing both subjective affect as well as further
    activating associated representations (affective priming).
  • Associative and reasoning
    processes differ in their ability to access other information. Smith and Kirby
    (2001) argue that reasoning processes only have access to information that has
    been encoded semantically whereas associative processes have access to all
    types of memory.
  • The model provides an map for
    the unconscious/implicit processing of emotion and how it influences other
    areas of consciousness.
While I’d like to tell you
about a whole series of empirical studies that have found support for this
model, I can’t because they don’t exist. There are, however, some recent
studies that provide some evidence for a functional distinction between
implicit and explicit emotional processes. I will discuss these in future posts
(research on alexithymia and autisim spectrum disorders).
This model of emotional
processing belongs to the ever-growing family of two-process theories in
cognitive psychology (e.g. Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968). These describe an
important distinction between two types of process. But, while I doubt they
represent the final solution, they do at least provide a useful way of thinking
about how the mind processes information. We will, however, have to wait for
further evidence of whether this type of model is justified in describing how
we process emotional information.
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.