Chapter 4: Cognitive Appraisal Theory

Cognitive Appraisal Theory

A cognitive appraisal is our interpretation of the eliciting event and of our bodily reactions to the eliciting event. Remember, cognitive appraisal could occur unconsciously, as James-Lange suggested, or consciously, as Schachter-Singer discussed.

Many appraisal dimensions exist (for examples, refer to Scherer (1997) study in last chapter here).  For instance, is the emotion caused by an internal or external event?  Is the eliciting event moral or immoral?

In general, cognitive appraisal theorists have noticed that people experience different emotions in response to the same eliciting event.  This led them to think about how people interpret eliciting events differently, ultimately leading them to experience different emotions.  Of course, for some emotional experiences such as joy (Scherer, 1997), most people experience the same cognitive appraisals and thus the same emotion.


Two Views of Cognitive Appraisal Theory Currently, two views describe the connection between cognitive appraisals and emotions.  The first view is that cognitive appraisals cause the emotion.  This view suggests that the way we interpret the eliciting event determines our emotions.  Thus, different interpretations of the same eliciting event could cause people to experience different emotions.  For instance, if we interpret an eliciting event as unexpected – then we might experience fear.  If we conclude that someone is blocking out goal, then we would experience anger.

The second view is that emotions cause appraisal.  From this view, cognitive appraisals occur after the felt emotion (after physiological and behavior changes).  For example, we might hear a gunshot and experience fear, which is then followed by cognitive appraisals of unexpectedness and ability to cope. Alternatively, we might feel angry and not know why – so we look for a reason.  Maybe we determine our friend gossiped about us and make the appraisal of external causation and goal obstruction.


Are appraisals universal or socially constructed? 

As discussed in the past chapter, basic emotions researchers believe cognitive appraisals are universal.  This view would suggest that the same emotional experience causes us to experience the same cognitive appraisals.  As discussed in Scherer (1997), participants did report the same cognitive appraisals across countries when they recalled a time they felt joy.   Similar to the autonomic sensitivity hypothesis for arousal, basic emotions theorists are looking for universal cognitive appraisal patterns association with unique emotions.

Social constructivist theorists, unlike basic emotions researchers, would claim that  people can appraise the same eliciting event in different ways, causing them to experience different emotions.  And Scherer’s (1997) study in fact found cultural differences in the cognitive appraisals people reported when calling specific emotional experiences.

So, who is right?  Read the next section to find out!


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