Cognitive Appraisal: Theory, Model & Definition

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  • 0:00 Definition of…
  • 1:16 Two-Step Appraisal
  • 2:23 Appraisal Theory
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
We all make cognitive appraisals every day, yet we likely don't think much about how they're formed and what they mean. In this lesson, you'll learn how to define them and explore the ways that they affect our lives and emotional well-being.

Definition of Cognitive Appraisal

Imagine that you get called into your boss' office and he tells you that they need to cut your schedule down to part-time for the next few months. Your boss doesn't offer any explanation or further information but does express his apologies before you go back to your desk. After considering his tone of voice, body language, and general demeanor, you decide that it must be a financial issue and is not related to your performance. Furthermore, you feel as though you need to cut back anyway, so having your hours reduced feels like it might be a benefit in the short-term.

You've made a cognitive appraisal of the interaction and arrived at a conclusion and emotional response. In simple terms, a cognitive appraisal is an assessment of an emotional situation wherein a person evaluates how the event will affect them, interprets the various aspects of the event, and arrives at a response based on that interpretation. Cognitive appraisals usually occur in situations where there is no physical stimulation or obvious clues as to how the situation should be interpreted. For example, if you wake up in the middle of the night and there's a stranger standing over you with a gun, you won't need a cognitive appraisal because the threat to your safety is clear, and the situation doesn't need interpretation.

Two-Step Appraisal

In general, the cognitive appraisal is used in ambiguous situations where there is little evidence to suggest how you should respond. In these cases, your brain goes through a two-step process of evaluation in order to figure out what's happened and how you should react.

The first step is referred to as primary appraisal, which is the evaluation of how the event or interaction will affect you personally. For example, if you hear that ten people are going to be laid off at your company, your first thought will be to assess how that could affect you. The conclusions drawn from the primary appraisal will determine the next step in the process, the secondary appraisal, in which you evaluate the factors and decide how you're going to respond.

If you hear the news about the layoffs, and you feel confident that you're not going to be one of them (primary appraisal), you'll likely shrug it off and keep working as though nothing had happened (secondary appraisal). If, on the other hand, you have reason to believe that you could be one of the ten, your secondary appraisal might be to panic, talk to your employer about your options, or start looking for another job.

Appraisal Theory

Cognitive appraisals are a normal part of human emotional functioning, and we will all use them over the course of our lives. For decades, researchers have theorized that cognitive appraisals can be a very useful way of gaining insight into a person's perception of themselves, their environment, and their ability to cope with stressful situations.

This theory, known as appraisal theory, posits that our emotional responses to a situation are tied directly to our interpretation of the situation as it unfolds. For example, if you were to go on a job interview and you feel like it didn't go well, you would leave feeling bad about yourself and your possibilities of being hired. Although this response might be short-lived, there is great possibility that you'll carry your interpretation and associated emotions into the next job interview that you have, which will influence how you feel before, during, and after the interview.

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