Appraisal theories

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Chapter 1 endnote 27, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Do all the test subjects get angry? No, they don’t. [...] Some versions of the classical view are designed to explain this variation; e.g., classical appraisal theories (chapter 8) propose that a person has to evaluate the situation in a particular way to trigger anger.

A perplexing situation persists in the science of emotion. A multitude of theories vary from one another in almost every way imaginable:

  • In the details of how an emotion should be defined
  • On where to draw the boundaries for what counts as an emotion and what does not
  • On which emotions matter
  • On how emotions are different from related concepts like mood, reward, and motivation
  • On how various phenomena such as facial movements, physiological changes, and feelings should be treated.

Theories even disagree on which observations and measurements count as evidence for hypothesis testing.  Scientists attempt to bring order to this dizzying cornucopia of theories in the same way that all living creatures deal with variation: we form categories.[1]

The two categories featured in How Emotions are Made are classical view theories and construction theories. Another category of emotion theories is called appraisal theories. These theories assume that a human brain does not just respond to the objects and events in the world, like a reflex, but instead interprets those objects and events, and these interpretations have something to do with emotion. The psychologist Nico Frijda, an eminent appraisal theorist, describes it like this: “Input some event with its particular kind of meaning: out comes an emotion of a particular kind."[2]

An example

Consider this passage about growing old, from Tina Fey’s book Bossy Pants:

“We all mentally prepare ourselves for wrinkles, but wrinkles are not the problem. It’s the unexpected grosseries. For example, your mouth. Dear God, your mouth. No matter how diligent you are about brushing and flossing—which is never diligent enough for that show-off dental hygienist of yours—at some point you start waking up every day with a mouth that smells like a snail left in the sun. You can fix it as soon as you get up—you brush and use mouthwash — but there’s something about knowing you woke up with hot-mothball mouth that makes you feel old.  I think God designed our mouths to die first to help us slowly transition to the grave.[3]

As I read this passage, I was sipping a glass of water that I promptly snorted out of my nose with laughter. My husband’s reaction to the same passage was “meh.” An appraisal theory approach would say that he and I had different “appraisals.”

Types of appraisal theories

Some appraisal theories take a classical view of emotion, and others are more consistent with construction.[4][5] This is a source of constant confusion in the science of emotion.

Classical appraisal theories assume that a human brain evaluates object and events, and these evaluations trigger emotions. These theories assume that “appraisals” are literal cognitive mechanisms that produce subjective evaluations, which, in turn, either cause or constitute emotions.[6][7][8]  They stipulate that descriptive mental features, such as novelty, are caused by a literal novelty-detector in your mind or brain (i.e., a process of the same name). In the Bossy Pants example, a classical appraisal theory would say that I must have evaluated the passage as personally relevant (because I am aging), whereas my husband did not; my appraisals then must have caused the happiness part of my brain to fire, triggering the face/brain fingerprint for happiness and joy — although water-snorting is perhaps not universal.

Classical appraisal theories assume that a scientist can deduce the ingredients of an emotion by asking test subjects what caused their emotional experience. Imagine trying reverse-engineer the complex recipe for a croissant — which requires hours to prepare — by tasting one and answering questions! Such approaches lead to mistaken views of how emotions are made.

Constructionist theories in the appraisal category, by contrast, define “appraisals” only as descriptive mental features, without making any causal claims. For example, a feeling that something is “novel” is not necessarily caused by single "novelty" mechanism; instead, a feeling is likely caused by the interaction of more basic ingredients (e.g., [9][10][11][12]).  (Some theories, such as that proposed by psychologist Nico Frijda, initially began as a classical appraisal theory, but then over the years developed into a constructionist appraisal theory.[13][14]) In the Bossy Pants example, a constructionist appraisal theory would say that I experienced the passage as personally relevant (because I care about my increasing decrepitude), whereas my husband did not. The theory makes no claims about how the experience was caused, however, because it can be caused by any number of degenerate processes.

The classical appraisal theory was proposed by David Irons in 1894.[15]  David Irons was arguing against William James' idea that emotions were instinctual.[16] Irons observed that the same object (e.g., a snake) can cause different emotional states, or no emotion at all, depending on the person's point of view. A later version of this theory, by Magna Arnold, claims that a profile of appraisals (of evaluations) trigger a basic emotion.  She wrote: "For each emotion, there is a distinct pattern that remains more or less constant and is recognized as characteristic for that emotion. Whether we are afraid of a bear, a snake, or a thunderstorm, our bodily sensations during these experiences are very much alike. […] there will always be a core that is similar from person to person and even from man to animal." ([17] p. 179). Once a particular profile of appraisals is invoked and the meaning of a situation or object is computed, the result will be an automated set of emotional changes that correspond to the appraisals in that instant. Another appraisal theory, by the psychologist Ira Roseman, proposes something very similar.  

Some causal appraisal theories emphasize variation in emotions more than do others. For example, the psychologist Klaus Scherer's theory has changed over the years, moving away from the emotion fingerprints idea to now emphasize the fact that instances within a single emotion category, such as fear, contains highly variable sets of expressions and physiological patterns. 

All classical appraisal theories assume some degree of essentialism, and all assume a stimulus-response view of the mind;[1] yet, we know that essentialism and stimulus-response logic does not match the anatomy or function of the brain (chapter 4). Furthermore, in classical appraisal theories, emotion states and processes amount to the same thing: separate and qualitatively distinct mechanisms (i.e., appraisals) are assumed to produce correspondingly specific and qualitatively distinct states that are described with mental features of the same name.  In constructionist appraisal theories, no such process-content dualism is required; there is no presumed parallelism between a mechanism and the resulting experience (there is no anger mechanism causing anger, no “goal relevance” mechanism evaluating goal relevance, and so on). 

Notes on the Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Barrett, Lisa Feldman. In press. "Categories and their role in the science of emotion."  Psychological Inquiry.
  2. Frijda called this the “law of situated meaning.” See Frijda, Nico H. 1988. “The Laws of Emotion.” American Psychologist 43 (5): 349–358.
  3. Fey, Tina. Bossypants. 2011. New York: Reagan Arthur Books, p. 113.
  4. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, Batja Mesquita, Kevin N. Ochsner, and James J. Gross. 2007. "The experience of emotion."  Annual Review of Psychology 58: 373.    
  5. Gross, James J. and Lisa Feldman Barrett. 2011. "Emotion generation and emotion regulation:  One or two depends on your point of view."  Emotion Review 3 (1): 8-16. 
  6. Lazarus, Richard S. 1966. Psychological Stress and the Coping Process. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  7. Roseman, Ira J. 2011. "Emotional behaviors, emotivational goals, emotion strategies: Multiple levels of organization integrate variable and consistent responses." Emotion Review 3 (4): 434-443.
  8. Scherer, Klaus R. 2009. "Emotions are emergent processes: they require a dynamic computational architecture." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364 (1535): 3459-3474.
  9. Ortony, Andrew, and Gerald Clore. 2015. "Can an appraisal model be compatible with psychological constructionism?" In The Psychological Construction of Emotion, edited by Lisa Feldman Barrett and James A. Russell, 305-333. New York: Guilford.
  10. Clore, Gerald L., and Andrew Ortony. 2000. "Cognition in emotion: Never, sometimes, or always?" In The Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion, edited by Richard D. Lane & Lynn Nadel, 24-61. New York: Oxford University Press.
  11. Clore, Gerald L., and Andrew Ortony. 2008. "Appraisal theories: How cognition shapes affect into emotion." In Handbook of Emotions, 3rd edition, edited by Michael Lewis, Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, 628-642. New York: Guilford Press.
  12. Barrett, Lisa Feldman. 2013. "Psychological construction: A Darwinian approach to the science of emotion."  Emotion Review 5: 379-389.
  13. Frijda, Nico H. 1986. The Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  14. Frijda, Nico. 2016. "The evolutionary emergence of what we call 'emotions'." Cognition & Emotion 30 (4): 609-620.
  15. Irons, David. 1894. "Prof. James’ theory of emotion." Mind 3: 77–97.
  16. In James, William. 1894. "The physical basis of emotion." Psychological Review, 1: 516-529.
  17. Arnold, Magda. 1960. Emotion and Personality. New York: Columbia University Press