Appraisal Processes in Emotion

Head Shake

[Photo by ilmungo]

The best known modern theory
conceptualising emotional states concentrates on two dimensions: valence and
arousal. Valence refers to whether you feel positive or negative and arousal
refers to physiological ‘excitement’. This model has been extremely popular
probably because it provides a relatively simple way of researching emotions
that can at least provide some answers. Rage, for example, can be considered an
emotion that is high on both negative affect as well as arousal.
While this model is useful in
some senses, it’s clear that there are a number of serious problems. Chief
amongst these is the question of how emotions that apparently have quite
distinct characteristics – like fear and anger – can be accounted for on these
two dimensions.
Going beyond this there are a
wide range of questions that you might want to ask about the emotions which
seem intrinsically too complicated to explain within this simple model. For
example, how come the same event provokes different emotional reactions in
different people? Or, in what sense is emotion irrational? How are our emotions
(largely) appropriate to the situations in which we find ourselves?
Appraisal theory
These are all questions which
Roseman & Smith (2001) argue stand a better chance of being answered with a
theory based around ‘appraisals’. At the heart of appraisal theory is the idea
that the particular judgements we make about particular parts of the outside
world, and ourselves, are what causes emotions.
Appraisal theory appears to
have the potential to answer many of the questions posed about emotions. For
example, people’s individual patterns of appraisal could explain the
differences in emotional reactions to the same event. Appraisal theory seems to
provide a good way of connecting the situation we are in with our emotional
Like many modern theories in
psychology appraisal has an evolutionary dimension. Returning to anger and how
it can be conceptualised, one particular appraisal theory posits that
differentiating anger from sadness can be seen as adaptive with respect to our
motivations. If we find ourselves in a situation which is appraised negatively
and there is no relevant action, for example a bereavement, we experience
sadness. On the other hand we may experience anger when there is a relevant
action that may be of benefit – for example . Sadness tends to encourage
passivity, while anger encourages activity (Roseman & Smith, 2001).
This suggested explanation of
anger also touches on the relational aspect of appraisal theory. Our situational
appraisals appear to be highly dependent on our motives and goals (Roseman
& Smith, 2001). In other words, how we feel depends on what’s important to
us, indeed all our appraisals are connected to what we want and, therefore, to
how we feel.
What kind of a thing is an
appraisal though? Is it a thought, an emotion itself, how can we think about
it? Roseman & Smith (2001) argue an appraisal can be thought of as a kind
of perception. Like vision or touch it is a kind of information processing
channel which works at a relatively low level. This may help to explain why our
emotional responses to certain situations often seem beyond our control.
Perhaps appraisals are analogous to vision in the sense that we can make
particular judgements about what we see, but we can’t choose how we see – that
is an automatic process.
Structural vs. process
theories of appraisal
Roseman & Smith (2001)
make the distinction between two types of appraisal theories. Firstly there are
structural theories which concentrate on picking apart the evaluations we make.
Secondly there are process-orientated models which concentrate on the actual
operation of emotional processes. It is one such process-orientated model that
I’ll be moving on to discuss in the next post where I’ll be discussing in more
detail how conscious and unconscious emotional processes fit together with

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.