Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Primary Sensory Appraisals

Primary Sensory, Perceptual Data-Driven Appraisals

Social Appraisals

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a generic appraisal as being an evaluation of worth, significance, or status; an estimate.  An appraisal, as such, is part of a process that assesses the meaningfulness and relevance of ongoing and previously experienced perceptual (sensory-related) and/or emotional (reward or aversive-related) schematic experience.  Accordingly, a social appraisal is an appraisal that assesses the personal meaningfulness of a social transaction and interaction between others and between oneself with another/others.

Richard Lazarus’s Primary and Secondary Appraisals

According to Richard Lazarus (1990, 1991a) and Lazarus & Folkman (1984) the cognitive appraisal system is characterized by two (social) appraisal components, primary and secondary appraisals.  In Richard Lazarus’s earlier writing (Folkman & Lazarus, 1991) primary appraisals were described as problem-focused evaluations of the self and other that facilitated coping and the later expression of emotion.  Secondary appraisals were referred to as emotion-focused evaluations responsible for the shifting of attention and facilitating coping (p. 214).  Both components eventually generate the preparation for, facilitation, and later support for problem-solving and active coping.

In later writings (Lazarus, 2006) primary appraisals experienced during social interactions were characterized by goal relevance (an interaction’s relevance for attaining a sense of well being), goal congruence or incongruence (an interaction’s ability for facilitating or thwarting one from obtaining what one wants), and the  nature of the ego involvement (i.e. the role of diverse goals for self-esteem, moral values, ego ideals, meanings and ideas, well-being of self and others, and life goals in shaping the later expression of emotion) (p. 92).

According to Richard Lazarus (1991a, 2006) primary (social) appraisal processes are automatic, ego-defensive unconscious and largely outside awareness (consciousness).   Accordingly, they are the product of implicit cognitive activities that precede the later expression of emotion.  They are implicit, as their experience is momentary and fleeting and easily forgotten.  They can be accessed through cue-dependent recognition, but due to their isolation from explicit memory processes, they are not easily retrievable.

Primary appraisals are goal-specific and have personal significance and relevance.  As such, goal-specific appraisals underlie the later expression of goal-specific actions, which are generated to implement task or social interaction-related needs and requirements.  The environmental response or outcome to goal-specific actions are then positively and negatively assessed by the individual for their schematic meaningfulness (coherence and ego involvement) and the outcome’s impact on one’s sense of well-being (Deiner, 2000; Stein & Liwag, 1997; Lazarus, 1991b). Positive primary appraisal processes therefore monitor, appraise and evaluate environmental responses, i.e. whether satisfying outcomes had indeed occurred and positive well-being had indeed been attained (i.e. that which happened and should have happened).

When environmental outcome meets expectation, expressing positive primary appraisals confirm that a match between expecting and receiving a rewarding stimulus had indeed occurred (i.e. that which should have happened to get the reward, did actually happen, and concluded and resolved with the experience of sense of well-being) (Stein & Liwag, 1997). The generated match confirms earlier relevance and the desire for well-being, its coherence, and ego involvement (Lazarus, 2006).  With social goal outcome match, i.e. wanting something from  a task (sense of well-being or mastery) or from an interpersonal relationship (i.e. social motivational expectation for wanting love (Murray, 1938; Maslow, 1954), control over outcomes,(Murray, 1938; McClelland, 1985) achievement, (Murray, 1938; Maslow, 1954; Atkinson, 1964) validation (Cooley, 1912; Rosenthal &  Jacobson, 1968), sense of well-being (Deiner, 2000; Diener, Scollon, & Lucas, 2003), anticipating safety and relief from averting fear (McClelland, 1985)) and attaining it, there is an expression of implicit positive primary appraisals and positive sense of well-being.

An example of a positive primary appraisal after receiving a much desired hug would be “Oh, I feel good.” “I am loved.” “I am wanted.” “Sue cares about me.” “I have value.” “I am valued.” Such aspects of a relationship concern motivations for affiliation and love and validation.  An example of positive primary appraisals after deriving a solution to a difficult mathematical problem would be “I did it; I am competent.” “I am empowered.” “I am good enough.” Such components of one’s relationship with one’s products would concern motivations for control over outcomes, achievement and mastery, and validation.  A match of social motivational expectation can also be likened to attaining a perceived sense of social reward and positive sense of well-being.

Positive primary appraisals are also associated with positive sense of well-being and the later expression of emotions like happiness, joy, pleasure, pride, etc (Stein & Liwag, 1997). Cumulatively experienced positive primary appraisal processes and associated positive emotions prime an organism’s physiological system for satisfaction and well-being and avert stress system activation and associated gene-related expression (author’s working hypothesis).

When an environmental outcome does not meet expectation, expressing negative primary appraisal processes appraise and confirm the outcome misalignment status and the impact of social goal outcome mismatch or social goal failure (i.e. conceptualizing that which did not happen, should have happened, and the resultant loss of sense of well-being experienced with this breach in expectation) (Stein & Liwag, 1997).  The generated mismatch disproves the earlier relevance of desire for well-being, its incoherence, and ego involvement (Lazarus, 2006).  Negative primary appraisal processes evaluate and appraise negative senses of well-being to unfulfilling or dissatisfying outcomes (i.e. that which should have happened, but did not happen).  With social goal-outcome mismatch, there is perceived sense of social goal failure, i.e. wanting something and not getting it (Stein & Liwag, 1997).

An example of negative primary appraisals after being thwarted from receiving a desired hug would be as follows.  “I feel pain.” “I am not loved.”  “I am not wanted.” “Nobody loves me.” “Sue doesn’t care about me.” “There’s something wrong with me.” An example of negative primary appraisals experienced after failing to master a difficult mathematical problem would be “I could not do it; “I am incompetent.” “I am a failure.” “I’m not good enough.” “I am not good at doing anything.”

This perceived breach in expectation is experienced as stressful and (emotionally) painful, is experienced viscerally (i.e. a gripping, painful sensation in the stomach, gastric motility, and/or a dropping sensation in the center chest), is accompanied by autonomic arousal (i.e. increased heart rate, blood pressure, pulse, skin conductance, sweating and muscle tightness), and is embodied in a number of negative primary appraisals (illustrated above).  During a certain number of encounters and periods of time, personality variables generate primary appraisals, which produce immediate effects and changes in both chronic physiological arousal and long term effects on somatic health and on illness (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

The cognitive “discrepancy” (generated by the initial mismatch) produces a visceral arousal and it is that combination of arousal and ongoing (schematic) evaluative cognition (primary appraisal) that (automatically) produces the (later) subjective experience of an emotion” (Mandler, 1990, p. 28).  Expressing negative primary appraisals and bodily responses to adverse environmental outcomes are typically followed by the expression of negative emotions (Stein & Liwag, 1997) like sadness, anger, shame, guilt, embarrassment, etc. Negative emotions are generated from primary appraisals in response to harmful, threatening, or challenging interpersonal interactions (Lazarus, 2006) (that temporarily damage the integrity of the psychological self) and the mismatch to rewarding expectations and adverse environmental outcomes (Stein & Liwag, 1997).


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