Cognitive Appraisal Theory of Emotion Explained


How a person feels after experiencing something that has just happened depends upon how a person perceives what has just happened. When there isn’t psychological arousal associated with the event, a person focuses on whether what happened was positive or negative. Then a person will begin to develop a theory regarding what they believe to be the cause of the event.

This creates the cognitive appraisal theory of emotion sequence. An event leads to thinking, which then leads to simultaneous emotion and arousal. In essence, thoughts lead to feelings, which then lead to actions.

Why Is This Sequence Important to Recognize?

Every event that happens to a person in their life is a trigger. That trigger can create positive thoughts or it can create negative thoughts. Every thought has a positive or negative connotation to it, based on the personal experiences and perspectives of the individual.

Take the smell of macaroni and cheese baking in the oven. For an individual who loves the dish because their mother made it for them, a positive trigger is created. An individual who is allergic to wheat or dairy would have a negative trigger created.

At this point, we don’t recognize the trigger. Our senses simply tell us what is being experienced. This is the event.

Now you experience the positive or negative energy that was created by the trigger and subsequent thoughts. That energy leads to an emotional reaction. In this example, the person with positive energy will likely feel delighted by what they’ve smelled. The person with negative energy will likely feel disgusted.

Now we reach the point in the sequence where there is conscious control. The emotional reaction is recognized as a positive or negative element. It can be traced consciously back to the trigger, which was the smell of the food baking. Now a decision is going to be made. Will the behaviors and actions taken next be positive?

Or will they be negative?

Focusing on the Decision Is the Most Important Element

In the cognitive appraisal theory of emotion, people have full control over their actions and behaviors. Once they experience the emotion of a trigger, there is a conscious decision to do something about what has happened. Most people can have their decisions broken down into these three categories.

  • Ignore the thoughts. In this instance, a person would ignore the emotional reaction and trigger. They might internalize the positive or negative feelings, but will not allow those feelings to translate into a positive or negative action.
  • Act upon the thoughts. Some people decide to take action after experiencing the thoughts and feelings which a trigger creates. Once an action is taken, it cannot be taken back. That’s why it is so important to avoid negative trigger decisions because that action tends to have the most personal consequences.
  • Experience another trigger. Some people feel shame or guilt whenever they experience negative energy, as if they are personally to blame for an emotional reaction to an event that occurs. Because the emotion shifts to something more powerful due to a trigger following a trigger, the reaction is to suppress the energy and emotions so they do not cause an outward behavior or action.

By recognizing what can be a negative trigger in an individual, there is the possibility of being able to avoid them over time. If someone is triggered negatively because of claustrophobia, then avoiding that trigger may mean not going to a location where there are small, dark spaces.

Recognizing negative triggers can also help to promote the use of coping skills.

Real Coping Skills and Why They Are Important

Coping skills are actions that help individuals process the information that is supplied by negative energy. This self-examination looks at the reasons why the energy was created, what the trigger happened to be, and then works to create a plan to avoid a similar set of circumstances in the future.

Unfortunately, many people can recognize the impacts of the cognitive appraisal theory of behavior, but lack the awareness to implement a coping skill. Many people choose to drink alcohol, listen to music, or watch TV as a way to “cope” with this negative energy.

Except this isn’t coping. It is avoidance.

Real coping skills are actions or activities that will help people understand the reasons why negative energy is present. It provides a cognitive awareness of what the next thought, behavior, or action should be to eliminate the negativity.

Then a final choice must be made. No matter what the initial perception may be, it is always possible to make positive choices.