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Appraisal Theory


Explanations > Theories > Appraisal Theory

Description | Example | So What? | See also | References 



Things happen. We appraise them, assessing them against various criteria. We then feel emotions based on those appraisals.

We do this in real-time, appraising and feeling as we go. We also do in reflectively, thinking further about what has happened and what may happen. When we think of the past or future we hence may feel good or bad about it.

Primary appraisal is an assessment of how significant an event is for a person, including whether it is a threat or opportunity. Secondary appraisal then considers one's ability to cope or take advantage of the situation.

A structural model of appraisal describes the relationships between:

  • Perception: The environment and the person's perception of this
  • Appraisal: The person's appraisal processes that evaluate the perceived environment in terms of values on a set of measures called appraisal dimensions.
  • Mediation: The processes that relate appraisal values to the person's emotions.

A process model of appraisal describes the detail of cognitive operations, mechanisms and dynamics by which the appraisal happens. In other words, the structural model is the static map and the process model is the dynamic operation.

This is a cognitive approach to understanding emotions. Other theories view emotion as more reactive, without the opportunity to think. Indeed, we sometimes do not get the chance to think, for example when a fierce creature leaps out at us and we react with animal instinct that short-circuits the slower cortical appraisal. However, such reactive emotion is not necessarily how we feel in all situations.

Originated in the 1940s by Magda Arnold, research was taken up in the 1970s by Richard Lazarus.

Appraisal Theory is a Cognitive Appraisal Theory. It is also known as Lazarus Theory, after the originator.


I see someone running towards me. I don't recognize them and feel afraid they may be going attack me. Then I recognize them as a friend, reappraise the situation and feel a sequence of relief and joy.

So What?

Using it

Design your interactions with others to create the appraisal and consequent emotions that you desire in them. You can also work backwards from their apparent emotions to discover their appraisal (maybe also you could ask questions to elicit this).

Reframing is a common way of changing how people appraise and react to the things.


When you feel something, rather than just reacting quickly reflect on what appraisal you made that led you to that feeling. If you change the appraisal, you can change how you feel.

See also

Cognitive Appraisal Theories of Emotion, Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion, James-Lange Theory of Emotion, Two-Factor Theory of Emotion



Lazarus, R.S. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of Emotion. American Psychologist, 46(8), 819-834.

Scherer, K.R., Shorr, A. and Johnstone, T. (Ed.). (2001). Appraisal processes in emotion: theory, methods, research. Canary, NC: Oxford University Press


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