Appraisal Theory of Emotions

Appraisal Theory of Emotion

Appraisal Theory of Emotion is the psychological theory that emotions arise from our appraisals of persons, places, and events. The appraisal, not the thing or event, arouses the physiological system. For example, we hire a person to perform carpentry work at our home. Upon meeting the person, we gather an array of information from our senses (sound of their voice, mannerisms, style of dress, punctuality, knowledge, etc…). From the vast information, we make appraisals of trustworthiness and competence and then those appraisals prompt an emotional reaction.

Appraisal theory of emotion accounts from individual emotional variance to the same experience. Appraisals are based upon past experience. If the person resembles someone from a painful memory than our appraisal of their trustworthiness may be impacted, prompting a negative emotional reaction.

Sequence Leading to Emotion

Most theories of emotion deal with the order of occurrences, moving between triggering event, arousal, felt experience, and action. Often the debate rages over where does conscious cognitive processing fall into the sequence. William James proposed that appraisal occurs late in the process, even after an action has been initiated.

​Lisa Feldman Barrett proposes that emotions are the interpretation of states of arousal. While Joseph LeDoux’s research discovered a duel line of neuronal communication, one moving through areas of the cortex associated with cognitive processing and another moving slightly faster (nanoseconds) to the amygdala—an area of commonly associated with emotional arousal.

​Emotional Arousal and Appraisal Theory

​One of the main critiques of appraisal theory is failing to account for primary biological arousal. Appraisal theory stems from early philosophies of notable figures such as Aristotle and Plato. The explicit theory of appraisal was developed in the 1940’s and 1950’s by Magna Arnold. According to Arnold, the initial appraisals start the emotional sequence and arouse the system.

Many positive pop psychology basics hold onto the appraisal theory. We hear remnants of this theory when motivational speakers proclaim, “we choose our emotions,” suggesting happiness, sadness, and anger are completely dependent on our personal appraisal. 

Books on Emotions

Primary and Secondary Appraisals

Overtime, like most theories, appraisal theory has integrated new findings to address growing concerns about arousals role and place in the experience/emotion sequence. One of the adaptations was integrating the dynamic nature of emotions.

​We over simplify in our effort to understand. We create a theory, such as the appraisal theory, depicting emotions has a single step in a process. Yet, the experience of emotion is complex, constantly changing in valence, and arousal. Each change sparks new appraisals and an ever changing incident of emotion.

​This dynamic cycle of change and appraisal is understood through primary and secondary appraisals.

Primary Appraisal

The primary appraisal is a simple evaluation between our needs and the environmental circumstances (or trigger). We appraise the relevancy of the situation and the the weight of the opportunity or threat. Importantly, the primary appraisal is the initial reaction to pull-away or approach.

Secondary Appraisal

The secondary appraisal is influenced by the emotions arising from the primary appraisal. Subsequently, we not only have the event, but also our anger, fear, or joy associated with the event.

Michael A. Tompkins, PhD, warns, “secondary judgments only make things worse.” He continues, “you feel not only anxious, but also guilty, ashamed, or depressed, and then you try to avoid these emotions the same way you avoid your anxious response” (2013). We feel emotion and the experience of that emotion conjures up our history with the that particular emotion. These cyclical experiences of secondary appraisals can bring us into a full blown panic attack.

Tompkins suggests learning to mindfully step away from the secondary appraisals, allowing for a clearer evaluation. he explains, “once you step away from your secondary anxious response, you can truly see whether it accurately reflects the situation you’re in right now” (2013). 

A Few Comments on Appraisal Theory from Psychology Fanatic

No theory can adequately explain the complex nature of emotions. The dynamic, everchanging nature of felt experience, leaves us humans in stunned awe. Appraisal theory directs attention to an important aspect of experience—integration. Each moment is not experienced in an isolated chamber but part of an ever changing internal universe.

​Our minds constantly seek to make order from the morass of incoming data—this is an appraisal of sorts. These initial appraisals are largely unconscious, beginning internal movements of change. Continual appraisals some unconscious, some conscious, begin to integrate the feelings with the experience, giving the changes a label and a story—I’m mad because he disrespected me.

The important aspect of appraisals is we can stop the cycle, create a break, and infuse an experience with better appraisal that invite greater wellness.

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Tompkins, M. A. (2013). Anxiety and Avoidance: A Universal Treatment for Anxiety, Panic, and Fear. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition.

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