Richard Lazarus attempts to explain how cognition, stress, and emotion are interrelated to one another through the cognitive mediational theory of emotion. His theory focuses on the role of what he called “appraisal.”
Appraisal is defined in this theory as the tendency of the human mind to create an automatic assessment of any given situation. These assessments are often done within the subconscious, helping each person understand what a specific situation means to them. Should there be a perception of emotion or arousal, then the cognitive appraisal of that situation creates a physical reaction that is based on the automatic perception.
If you hear a gunshot, for example, the cognitive meditational theory of emotion says that there could be several physiological responses that are initiated. You might feel your pulse rate speed up. You might feel more energetic because of a release of adrenaline. You might automatically duck down to the ground to avoid a potential bullet. Your body might begin to tremble.
Why Do Some People Respond Differently to Stimuli?
According to Lazarus, the physiological reactions that an external stimulus can cause is based on the personal meaning that the individual has to it. For some people, the sound of a gunshot is an immediate emergency. This creates feelings of fear because there is an imminent to protect one’s life. This creates the rapid heart rate, the adrenaline surge, and other physical reactions that are association with the feelings being experienced.
For others, the sound of a gunshot in their personal experience is a stimulus which means other people require help. Instead of feeling fear, they feel motivation. They might experience a heightened awareness of their environment, looking for people in need who might require a helping hand. Instead of running away or hiding from the sound, they begin to run toward it because that what their personal experiences dictate.
How Do People Appraise Any Given Situation?
Within any environment, Richard Lazarus proposed that every person when through a 5-step process whenever they encountered a stressful trigger. Although the mind would be reacting through the emotions of the moment, each person would also be using a perception filter in order to create a meaningful appraisal of what is happening and what should be done.
Here are the 5 stages of the cognitive mediational theory of emotion and what to expect in each stage.
Stage #1 – Primary Appraisal
In this stage, an individual encounters a stimulus and analyzes it. This situation can either be positive, dangerous, or irrelevant. Positive and irrelevant stimuli immediately end the stages of emotion that are encountered. If a stimulus is appraised as being dangerous, then it will be analyzed to see if it is a challenge, a threat, and if harm might occur.
Stage #2 – Secondary Appraisal
If a situation is deemed to be dangerous, an individual determines if they have enough resources to deal with the situation. If there are enough resources, then this will end the progressive stages of emotion. If there are insufficient resources, then an individual will progress to the next stage.
Stage #3 – Stress
A lack of resources creates stress. This trigger then creates an emotional response that creates physiological symptoms. A person will remain at this stage until they are willing or able to begin working toward overcoming the stress they are experiencing.
Stage #4 – Coping Skills
There are two methods of coping that an individual can use to deal with stress. Problem-focused coping looks to change the situation, so if a gunshot is heard, the person could run away from that environment so they can be someplace safer. Emotionally-focused coping will look to change the relation to the situation being experienced. A person might calm down if they realize the gunshot sounded because they are close to a shooting range.
Stage #5 – Reappraisal
Once stress has been removed, an individual will then reappraise their current situation. If it is still dangerous, then these stages will repeat themselves. If not, then the individual learns from the event so that the reactions can be more efficient in the future.
Hope and Gratitude in the Mediational Theory of Emotion
Richard Lazarus often worked on topics like gratitude and hope. He believed that people could cope with stressful events by creating new circumstances for themselves. Instead of trying to take a “realistic” approach, Lazarus discovered that people who “denied” their situation and told themselves that everything would work out for the best would typically do better.
Lazarus also found that stress had less to do with a situation and more to do with their physical resources.
By understanding our emotions, we can understand how we react to stress. Then we can handle that stress effectively. That’s the foundation of the cognitive meditational theory of emotion.