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What is cognitive appraisal?

In work-related settings, how we respond to an event or situation depends on how we interpret the particular demands we are faced with.
Man with his hands in his hair

In work-related settings, how we respond to an event or situation depends on how we interpret the particular demands we are faced with. This is known as cognitive appraisal.

The notion of cognitive appraisal is one of the most persistent and empirically supported theories in psychology. At its core is the cognitive-behavioural idea that it is not the event that directly causes emotions and behaviours, but how we perceive (or appraise) the event.

Lazarus and colleagues purported a specific process through which emotion is generated via cognitive appraisal (here’s a brief outline). In essence, it suggests that emotions are cognitively generated and do not occur “automatically”. However, one can appraise an event at an unconscious level rapidly, producing the sensation of instant and automatic emotional responding.

How is emotion involved?

There is some debate among notable scientists (e.g., Frijda, 1993; LeDoux, 1998) who suggest that actually emotion can, and has to, be generated away from cognitive appraisal or at least conscious awareness. LeDoux supported this notion by proposing that perception and appraisal are processed separately in the brain, which the appraisal system begins automatically before the perceptual system has fully interpreted the stimuli, and that the appraisal systems connect directly to systems involved in the control of emotional responses.

Think of the panic response, for example. The brain needs to react instantly to sudden danger and thus any cognitive processing will slow down the emotional response (which leads to defensive behaviour) and put you in potential danger.

Despite the ongoing debate, cognitive appraisal theory has hundreds of supporting studies and at a practical level makes sense.

The most cited cognitive appraisal process is thus:

Cognitive appraisal


An example of cognitive appraisal


Reflect on a personal experience where you faced some pressure and felt stressed. Use the above process to outline how the emotion emerged via cognitive appraisal.

This process has been changed, refined, added to, over the years. Here is a more complex version:

A more complex appraisal

In this brief section we have given you an overview of how we make sense of the world. The way in which we cognitively apprise the demands of a situation. There are a number of factors that can impact our appraisal process, such as our past experience, and the amount of sleep we have had.

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