Appraisal Theory of Emotion

According to appraisal theory, our interpretation of a situation causes an emotional response that is based on that interpretation.

Key Takeaways

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Researchers have developed several theories of how human emotions arise and are represented in the brain. The mechanisms behind our experience of emotions and our cognitive processing of them remains a central topic of research and debate. The appraisal theory of emotion, developed primarily through the work of prominent researchers Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus, proposes that emotions are extracted from our “appraisals” (i.e., our evaluations, interpretations, and explanations) of events. The central question that the appraisal theory seeks to answer is why different people have different perceptions of and emotional reactions to the same situations.

For example, if a person goes on a romantic date and perceives this date as positive, they might feel happiness, joy, giddiness, excitement, or anticipation because they have appraised this event as one that could have positive effects. On the other hand, if the date is perceived negatively, the person’s resulting emotions might include dejection, sadness, emptiness, or fear (Scherer et al., 2001).

Magda B. Arnold

Magda Arnold (1903–2002) was an American psychologist who coined the term appraisal to refer to the cognitive processes preceding the elicitation of emotion. She developed her “cognitive theory” in the 1960s, which specified that the first step in experiencing an emotion is an appraisal of the situation. According to Arnold, an initial appraisal begins the emotional sequence by arousing both the appropriate physiological reactions and the emotional experience itself. In this way, she identified physiological changes as important to the process but not as the initiator of people’s reactions and experiences.

Richard Lazarus

Psychologist Richard Lazarus (1991) adapted Arnold’s work slightly in the development of his cognitive-mediational theory, which asserts our emotions are determined by our appraisals of stimuli. This appraisal mediates between the stimulus and the emotional response, and it is immediate and often unconscious. In contrast to the Schachter–Singer theory of emotions, which views emotion as an outcome of the interaction between physiological arousal and cognition, Lazarus argued that the appraisal precedes cognitive labeling, simultaneously stimulating both the physiological arousal and the emotional experience itself.


Comparing the theories of emotion: This figure illustrates how Lazarus’ appraisal theory differentiates from the James–Lange, Cannon–Bard, and Schachter–Singer theories of emotion.

Lazarus argued that the cognitive activity involved in interpreting emotional context could be conscious or unconscious and may or may not take the form of conceptual processing. He stressed that the quality and intensity of emotions are controlled through cognitive processes, which mediate the relationship between the person and the environment through coping strategies, which in turn are the basis of the emotional reaction.

In his research, Lazarus specified two major types of appraisal methods: 1) primary appraisal, which seeks to establish the significance or meaning of an event, and 2) secondary appraisal, which assesses the ability of the individual to cope with the consequences of the event. In the specific context of emotion and stress, Lazarus described primary appraisals as judgments about the degree of potential harm or threat to well-being that a stressor might introduce. The perception of a threat then triggers the secondary appraisal—judgment of the options available to cope with the stressor—as well as perceptions of how effective such options will be.

Lazarus: Primary and secondary appraisal: According to Lazarus’ cognitive-mediational theory, upon encountering a stressor, a person judges its potential threat (via primary appraisal) and then determines if effective options are available to manage the situation (via secondary appraisal). Stress is likely to result if a stressor is perceived as threatening and few or no effective coping options are available.

Key Takeaways


Researchers have developed several theories of how human emotions arise and are represented in the brain. The James–Lange theory of emotion, for instance, asserts that emotions arise from physiological arousal: in essence, that the self-perception of changes in the body produce emotional experiences. According to this theory, we laugh (a physiological response to a stimulus), and consequently we feel happy (an emotion); we cry, and consequently we feel sad.

For example, if you were to encounter a venomous snake in your backyard, your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for activating your fight-or-flight response) would initiate physiological arousal, making your heart race and increasing your breathing rate. According to the James–Lange theory of emotion, you would experience a feeling of fear only after this physiological arousal had taken place. Different arousal patterns would be associated with different feelings.

James–Lange theory: The James–Lange theory of emotion states that emotions arise as a result of physiological arousal.

One limitation of this theory is that it is not known exactly what causes the changes in the body, so it is unclear whether those changes should be considered part of the emotion itself. Critics of the James–Lange theory also doubt that there is sufficient variation in physiological arousal to lead to the wide variety of emotions that we experience. To address these limitations, other theories—such as the Cannon–Bard theory—have been developed.

Cannon–Bard Theory of Emotion

The Cannon–Bard theory of emotion argues that physiological arousal and emotional experience occur simultaneously but independently.

Key Takeaways


Researchers have developed several theories of how human emotions arise and are represented in the brain. The Cannon–Bard theory of emotion was developed by researchers who criticized the James–Lange theory for its limited ability to account for the wide variety of emotions experienced by human beings. While the James–Lange theory proposes that emotions arise from physical arousal the Cannon–Bard theory argues that physiological arousal and emotional experience occur simultaneously, yet independently (Lang, 1994).

Cannon–Bard theory of emotion: The Cannon–Bard theory states that physiological arousal and emotional experience occur simultaneously, yet independently.

This theory posits that when you see a venomous snake in your backyard, you feel fear at exactly the same time that your body initiates its physiological fight-or-flight response. Even though they occur at the same time, your emotional reaction and your physiological reaction would be separate and independent.

According to the Cannon–Bard theory, emotional expression results from activation of the subcortical centers of the brain. The optic thalamus, in particular, is a region that contains the neural organizations for different emotional expressions. An individual’s sensory organs take in an emotional stimulus, and then information about that stimulus is relayed to the cerebral cortex. It is in the cortex where such information is associated with conditioned processes, which in turn determine the direction of the response and stimulate the thalamic processes.

Schachter–Singer Theory of Emotion (Two-Factor Theory)

The Schachter–Singer theory views emotion as the result of the interaction between two factors: physiological arousal and cognition.

Learning Objectives

Describe the relationship between the “two factors” of two-factor theory, also known as Schachter–Singer theory

Key Takeaways


Researchers have developed several theories of how human emotions arise and are represented in the brain. Like the James–Lange and Cannon–Bard theories, the Schachter–Singer theory of emotion (also known as the two-factor theory) attempts to explain emotion as it relates to physiological arousal.

According to the Schacter–Singer theory, emotion results from the interaction between two factors: physiological arousal and cognition. More specifically, this theory claims that physiological arousal is cognitively interpreted within the context of each situation, which ultimately produces the emotional experience. These cognitive interpretations —how a person labels and understands what they are experiencing—are formed based on the person’s past experiences.

The Schachter–Singer two-factor theory: The Schachter–Singer theory views emotion as resulting from the interaction of two factors: physiological arousal and cognition.

For example, if you were to see a venomous snake in your backyard, the Schachter–Singer theory argues that the snake would elicit sympathetic nervous system activation (physiological arousal) that would be cognitively labeled as fear (cognition) based on the context. What you would actually experience, then, would be the feeling of fear.

In their research, Singer and Schachter injected participants with adrenaline (epinephrine), which causes a number of physiological effects, such as increased blood flow to the muscles and increased heart rate. They found that injecting the drug did not lead participants to experience any given emotion. Contrary to the James–Lange theory, therefore, which asserts that emotions arise from physiological arousal, this theory argues that bodily changes can support conscious emotional experiences but do not necessarily cause them. Rather, the interpretation of a certain emotion depends on both the individual’s physiological state as well as their circumstances, a relationship mediated by cognitive processing.

The Facial Feedback Hypothesis

The facial feedback hypothesis asserts that facial expressions are capable of influencing our emotions.

Key Takeaways


Does smiling make you happy, or does being happy make you smile? The facial feedback hypothesis asserts facial expressions are not only the results of our emotions but are also capable of influencing our emotions. In other words, the act of smiling can itself actually make you feel happier. (Buck, 1980; Soussignan, 2001; Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988).


The impact of facial expressions: According to the facial feedback hypothesis, facial expressions aren’t simply caused by emotions—they can influence our emotions as well. Smiling more frequently over a period of time can, in fact, make you feel happier.

Research into the Facial Feedback Hypothesis

Research investigating the facial feedback hypothesis has found that suppressing facial expressions of emotion may decrease how intensely those emotions are experienced (Davis, Senghas, & Ochsner, 2009).

Recently, the use of Botox to temporarily paralyze facial muscles has also provided strong experimental support for some kind of facial-feedback mechanism involved in emotion. Havas, Glenberg, Gutowski, Lucarelli, and Davidson (2010) discovered that individuals with depression reported lessened depressive symptoms after paralysis of their frowning muscles with Botox injections. Findings from this and other studies suggest that facial feedback modulates the neural processing of emotional content.

In an attempt to objectively assess the facial feedback hypothesis, Strack, Martin, and Stepper (1988) devised an experiment that would hide their true goals from the participants. Participants were simply told that they were taking part in a study to determine the difficulty of accomplishing certain tasks for people who do not have the use of their hands or arms. To this end, participants held a pen in their mouth in one of three ways: the Lip position would contract the orbicularis oris muscle, resulting in a frown; the Teeth position would contract the zygomaticus major or the risorius muscle, resulting in a smile; and the control group would hold the pen in their non-dominant hand. All participants had to complete a questionnaire while holding the pen and rate the difficulty of doing so. The last task, which was the experiment’s real object of interest, was for the participants to subjectively rate the the funniness of a cartoon. As predicted, participants in the Teeth condition (who were, technically, smiling throughout the exercise) reported significantly higher amusement ratings than those in the Lips condition. This outcome supported the facial feedback hypothesis.

Of course, emotion is displayed not only through facial expression but also through tone of voice and behavior. Specifically, body language is the expression of emotion through body position and movement. Research suggests that we are quite sensitive to the emotional information communicated through body language, even if we’re not consciously aware of it (de Gelder, 2006; Tamietto et al., 2009).

Autism and Emotional Expression

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a set of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulties with communication and social interaction. Children who have ASD have difficulty recognizing the emotional states of others; research has shown that this may stem from an inability to differentiate among various nonverbal expressions of emotion (e.g., facial expressions) (Hobson, 1986). There is also evidence that suggests that individuals with ASD have difficulty expressing their own emotion through tone of voice and facial expressions (Macdonald et al., 1989).

Difficulties with emotional recognition and expression may contribute to the impaired social interaction and communication that characterize ASD. Various therapeutic approaches have been explored to address these difficulties: different educational curricula, cognitive behavioral therapies, and pharmacological therapies have shown some promise in helping individuals with ASD to process emotionally relevant information (Bauminger, 2002; Golan & Baron-Cohen, 2006; Guastella et al., 2010).