The evening news on TV presents extensive coverage of an oil spill just off the Spanish coast. The audience sees the sinking of an oil tanker in a severe storm, learns that it has leaked tens of thousands of tons of heavy fuel oil, and watches pictures of birds fighting a hopeless fight for survival as their feathers are agglutinated. It will be mentioned that at the moment the cause of the accident is still obscure. To analyze the effects of this media coverage on the audience it will be crucial to know what kind of cognitive processes and emotional reactions are likely to occur. For example, the identification of a clearly responsible human agent is likely to elicit anger and anger-congruent cognitions, whereas the recognition that matters were out of anyone’s control more often leads to predominantly sad reactions. “Appraisal theories of emotions” offer a more complete and systematic linkage between such cognitive evaluations of a situation and emotional reactions (see Scherer et al. 2001, for an overview).
More generally, these theories link cognitive evaluations about the significance of a situation for a person’s goal or well-being – that is, the cognitive appraisals of a situation – to that person’s emotional experiences. For example, the appraisal that a situation is positively relevant for a person is seen as determining positive emotions, whereas the appraisal of negative relevance for a person is regarded as determining negative emotions. Of course, there are additional appraisals and it is assumed that different patterns of appraisals further differentiate emotions. Within appraisal theories, emotions are seen as continuous processes, changing as appraisals are added or revised.
Whereas the famous theory of James (1884) had argued that humans are not afraid of a bear and then run, but rather are afraid because they perceive themselves running, appraisal theorists insist on the primacy of the initial evaluation of the situation. Without the perception of the bear in the first place, its evaluation as a life-threatening animal, and the understanding that attacking it oneself is impossible, people would neither run nor be afraid. Appraisal theorists assume that initial evaluation or, in theoretical jargon, the situational appraisal causes experienced emotions (Roseman & Evdokas 2004). In contrast to Schachter’s two-component theory of emotion (Schachter & Singer 1962), appraisal theories do not consider physiological arousal a necessary precondition for emotional reactions.
Although theorists disagree over details, granularity, and number of appraisal criteria, there is considerable consensus regarding the central and most important criteria for differentiation and elicitation of emotional reactions (Ellsworth & Scherer 2003). For example, most appraisal models include an evaluation of the degree to which a situation or event is consistent with, or conducive to, achieving one’s goals. This criterion differentiates between positive and negative emotions. Another important criterion is agency or responsibility for an event: an event might be caused by the self, other persons, or by situational circumstances. Other important criteria are one’s own potential to cope with the consequences of the event, and the event’s normative significance; that is, its compatibility with prevalent moral standards. Novelty, unexpectedness, and pleasantness (or valence of a stimulus) are also among the core appraisal criteria.
Most appraisal theories assume emotions to be caused by appraisal, assuming a linear causal relationship between appraisal and emotion. Some theorists have challenged this view and postulate in one form or another reciprocal causation between cognitive appraisal and emotion. If the appraisal–emotion link is not a simple, causal relationship, then both cognitive interpretation and development of an emotion should emerge over time in a dynamic, bidirectional way (Lewis 2005). This stance implies that an emotion is continuously enhanced or modified by changes in appraisal, while appraisal is progressively updated by emotional influences on perceptions, judgments, or memories.
Adopting such a dynamic appraisal – emotion relationship has important implications for analyzing media effects. This was shown by Nerb and Spada (2001), who developed the computational model ITERA for analyzing and predicting media effects assuming a dynamic, bidirectional appraisal–emotion relationship. Using fictitious but realistic newspaper reports about an environmental problem, the authors manipulated attributes determining the agent’s responsibility for environmental damage (knowledge about the riskiness of an action; motive of the actor). Manipulating these appraisals of responsibility not only influenced participants’ felt anger and sadness but also affected ratings on nonmanipulated attributes of the negative event. The effects on those non-manipulated variables were coherent with the overall emotional reactions of the participants. For example, in one study the manipulation of whether a company had control over the actions that caused an environmental problem not only affected ratings for anger, but also led to affective coherent judgments about the motive and knowledge of the agent. Although nothing was mentioned in the news report about the motive of the agent and whether the company could foresee that its action could imply a negative outcome, participants found that the company had more knowledge about the riskiness of the action and had a more negative motive when the action was controllable than when it was uncontrollable. Thus, participants’ construals of the situation are consistent with the underlying appraisal pattern for anger.
Recent developments within appraisal theory are concerned with the social aspects of the genesis of emotions. According to this view, emotion process does not unfold in a microworld that only involves the emotional stimulus and the individual concerned, but is always embedded in a broader social context (Fischer et al. 2003). Thus, people include in their appraisal of a situation the way in which other people judge, evaluate, or behave in response to an emotional situation; this is called social appraisal. As a consequence, experienced emotions might not need to be the result of one’s own situational appraisals; rather, it might be others’ communicated appraisals that cause or modulate emotional responses.
- Ellsworth, P. C., & Scherer, K. R. (2003). Appraisal processes in emotion. In R. J. Davidson, H. Goldsmith, & K. R. Scherer (eds.), Handbook of the affective sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 572 –595.
- Fischer, A. H., Manstead, A. S. R., & Zaalberg, R. (2003). Social influences on the emotion process. In M. Hewstone & W. Stroebe (eds.), European review of social psychology, vol. 14. Hove: Psychology Press/Taylor and Francis, pp. 171–201.
- James, W. (1884). What is emotion? Mind, 9, 188 –205.
- Lewis, M. D. (2005). Bridging emotion theory and neurobiology through dynamic systems modeling (target article). Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 169 –194.
- Nerb, J. (2007). Exploring the dynamics of the appraisal– emotion relationship: A constraint satisfaction model of the appraisal process. Cognition and Emotion, in press.
- Nerb, J., & Spada, H. (2001). Evaluation of environmental problems: A coherence model of cognition and emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 15, 521–551.
- Nerb, J., Spada, H., & Lay, K. (2001). Environmental risk in the media: Modeling the reactions of the audience. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 9, 57– 85.
- Roseman, I. J., & Evdokas, A. (2004). Appraisals cause experienced emotions: Experimental evidence. Cognition and Emotion, 18, 1–28.
- Schachter, S., & Singer, J. E. (1962). Cognitive, social and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379 –399.
- Scherer, K. R., Schorr, A., & Johnstone, T. (2001). Appraisal processes in emotion. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Wahl, S., Frings, S., Hermann, F., Nerb, J., & Spada, H. (2000). So ein Ärger! – Die Rezeption von Zeitungsmeldungen über Umweltprobleme (How annoying! The reception of newspaper reports about environmental problems). Medienpsychologie, 12, 223 –241.