Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Secondary Action-Producing Appraisals


Secondary Action-Producing Appraisals

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an appraisal as 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.  A social appraisal (or a self-other appraisal as social suggests the existence of interaction between two human beings) is a type of appraisal that cumulatively assesses the self, at any point in time, as a dynamic participant who interprets and attributes meaning to interpersonal interactions between self and other (Fiske & Taylor, 1991).

The social appraisal process can best be understood as being composed of sequentially expressed appraisals that are differentially expressed during an event, episode, or task to facilitate problem-solving and transaction analysis.

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 Richard Lazarus’s (2006) later writings primary appraisals experienced during social interactions were characterized by their 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).  Subsequently expressing secondary (social) appraisal processes served to conceptualize and evaluate action planning and coping.  The following section will provide a brief description of the primary aspect and will then focus and elaborate on the secondary component of Lazarus’s primary and secondary appraisals.

Primary (social) appraisal processes are automatic, ego-defensive, unconscious and largely outside awareness (consciousness) (Lazarus, 1991a, 2006).  They are goal-specific and have relevance.  Goal-specific appraisals underlie the expression of goal-specific actions, which are generated to implement task or social interaction-related needs and requirements.

When the environmental response or outcome to goal-specific actions 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) (Deiner, 2000; Stein & Liwag, 1997; Lazarus, 1991b).  The generated match confirms the earlier relevance of desire for well-being, its coherence, and ego involvement (Lazarus, 2006) and allows for the later expression of emotions like happiness, joy, pleasure, pride, etc (Stein & Liwag, 1997).  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.  It is experienced as stressful, painful, viscerally.  It is also accompanied by autonomic arousal and is embodied in a number of negative primary appraisals (Folkman & Lazarus, 1984).  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.

Many different authors have offered many different causes and descriptions of emotions.  James Hillman (1962) described emotions as having psychological transformative aspects of general energy, which ascribe importance, value, significance, and meaning to a given attribute. Like Lazarus noted above, Nico Frijda (2008) said that emotions are defined by appraisals and motivations (preceding their expression).  They are spontaneously “triggered by events as appraised” (p. 71) and are shaped by regulatory processes (Frijda, 1986, p. 6). Richard Lazarus (1991a) said emotions are a response to (or stems from) (automatic and conscious) evaluative judgments (e.g. primary and secondary appraisals) that center on either beneficial or harmful experiences in one’s relationships with his/her environment. Oatley & Johnson (1987) described emotions as being pivotal in the mental and social lives of humans and as serving integrative and important roles in subjective experience.  Accordingly, emotions also facilitate the changing of physiological reactions and the selecting of intentional actions and responses to interpersonal interactions.  Edmund T. Rolls (2005) said that emotions are states that are elicited from rewards and punishers.  A reward is something or an aspect of a relationship that an animal or person will work to acquire (for potential sense of well-being) (ref: Lazarus, 2006); a punisher is something or an aspect of a relationship that one will work to avoid, escape, (or overcome).  Positive emotions are therefore elicited when reward is received; negative emotions (like anger, frustration, and sadness) arise when reward is denied or terminated.  (The role for appraisal as an important, intermediary process between reward/punishment status and emotion is sorely overlooked in E.T. Roll’s conception of emotion.)  Finally Jerome Kagan (2007) noted that emotional states support sustained attention and avoidance learning.  They underlie the drive for goal persistence and may also trigger later unethical behaviors and long term memory retrieval.  Finally emotional states can both underlie and facilitate sexual desire and child-parent bonding (p. 4).

According to Richard Lazarus, stress related emotions typically allow the expression of secondary appraisals for conscious, deliberate planning for coping options with stressful encounters (2006-p. 76).  Secondary appraisals are usually conscious and linked with conceptual processing and intentional thought.  They are associated with reasoning (Lazarus, 1991a) and mediate coping with troubling, adverse social interactions (Lazarus, 1990; 1991b). Secondary appraisals or (reappraisals) answer the following questions (p. 78). What do I do? How do I react? Why?  When do I react? Am I capable of reacting like that?  Are there any other alternative actions? What are the consequences of such actions?  Weighing coping options allows for “selecting the best coping process for a particular situation” (Lazarus, 2006-p. 80). These self-questions can be summarized as thought processes relating to coping potential (or as a result of one’s actions, how can one avert harm or derive a benefit) and future expectations (how will the environment and self change as a result of action taken) (2006-p. 92). Secondary appraisals therefore evaluate the need for changing or accepting the stressful outcome, for inhibiting one’s later response, and for further inquiry (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).  Like primary appraisals, secondary appraisals facilitate later coping emotion.

Emotions have many descriptive, evaluative, and state functions, but one very critical and often overlooked function of emotion is its role in mediating the continuation or abandonment of a goal state.  Though Richard Lazarus referenced roles for goal relevance, congruence, and an outcome’s impact on the ego and self-esteem in the development of primary appraisals; these components also underlie and have roles in the expression of emotion and secondary appraisals.

Ultimately all organisms on earth (including humans) seek a sense of well-being and relief from discomfort and pain.  For instance in a situation where a person is being threatened by a source, the person would reactively generate thoughts relating to pain (e.g. I am in pain), loss of control over outcomes or helpless (e.g. I am helpless or I am trapped), etc.  The breach in expectation for a sense of safety and well-being later underlies the expression of fearful emotion. The expression of fear propels a person to develop goals that seek avoidance of the eliciting source of pain and helplessness.  Withdrawing from a source of fear is ultimately experienced as rewarding relief (McClelland, 1985).  Fearful behavior and strategies generate secondary avoidance responses (e.g. appraisals, emotional, and behavioral responses) for ensuring safety and well-being. These secondary goals (as opposed to the initial primary goals underlying primary appraisal expression) would guide the development and selection of preparatory avoidant behaviors.

According to Stein & Liwag (1997) emotions of happiness and anger are associated with goal persistence (for potential sense of well-being), as goals for working toward and attaining reward (well-being) are supported by (approach) behavior and movement toward a rewarding source (for sense of well-being).  Being denied its delivery (or operant conditioning’s negative punishment (Rachlin, 1976) and frustrative, nonreward (Wagner, 1969; Gray, 1975)) (in the social situation like acceptance, love, respect, etc. from another) can in some individuals produce emotions (e.g. anger, rage, etc.), (later secondary appraisals,) and behaviors for overcoming reward delivery obstacles and goal outcome failures (Stein, Trabasso, & Liwag, 1993).  In response to failure for or loss of reward delivery (and well-being) sadness is associated with secondary (appraisals for and) behaviors for abandoning and ceasing plans and behaviors that had initially associated with goal acquisition (Stein & Trabasso, 1992; Stein & Liwag, 1997).  Emotions in this sense act to reset goals, facilitating behavioral flexibility and enhancing an organism’s adaptation.

The course and sequence I have outlined above can be summarized as follows. Initial cognitive appraisals progress from primary to secondary.  Primary appraisals are goal relevant in nature.  They evaluate initial conditions, the development of potential strategies, which will underlie one’s behavioral response, and then the environment’s later response to one’s prior actions.  The environmental outcome spawns initial arousal and then later valanced emotion. This emotional expression allows for the expression of secondary appraisal processes, which later facilitate coping behaviors, their outcomes and then emotions.


Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being.  The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index.  American Psychologist, 55(1), 34-43.

Fiske, S.T. & Taylor, S.E. (1991). Social cognition. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Folkman, S. & Lazarus, R.S. (1991) Coping & Emotion.  In: Monat,  &  Lazarus, R.S. Stress & coping, pp. 207-227, New York: Columbia University Press.

Frijda, N.H. (2008) The psychologist’s point of view.  In: M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, L. Feldman-Barrett (Eds.) Handbook of emotion-3rd Edition.  New York: Guilford.

Frijda, N.H. (1986). The emotions: Studies in emotion and social interactions.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gray, J.A. (1975). Elements of two-process theory of learning. London: Academic Press. (Chapter 8, 9, 10)

Hillman, J. (1962). Emotion. Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Kagan, J. (2007). What is emotion? Binghamton, New York: Vail-Ballou Press.

Lazarus, R.S. (1990).  Constructs of the mind in adaptation.  In: N.L. Stein, B. Leventhal, & T. Trabasso (Eds.) Psychological and biological approaches to emotion, (pp. 3-19).  Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, Assoc. Pub.

Lazarus, R.S. (1991a). Cognition and motivation in emotion.  American Psychologist, 46(4), 352-367.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991b). Emotion & Adaptation.  In: J.M. Jenkins, K. Oatley, N.L.Stein (Eds.) Human emotion: A reader.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.

Lazarus, R.S. (2006). Stress and emotion: A New Synthesis-2nd Edition. New York: Springer Publishing.

Lazarus, R.S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping.  New York: Springer Publishing Company.

McClelland, D.C. (1985). Human motivation. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, & Co. (Chapters 7, 8, 9, 10).

Oatley, K. & Johnson-Laird, P.N. (1987). Towards a cognitive theory of emotions.  Cognition & Emotion, 1, 29-50.

Rachlin, H. (1976). Behavior & learning. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman (Chapter 5).

Rolls, E. T. (2005). Emotion explained.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Stein, N.L. & Liwag, M.D. (1997). Children’s understanding, evaluation, and memory for emotional events.  In: P.W. Van den Broek, P. Bauer, & T. Bourg (Eds.) Developmental spans in event comprehension and representation (pp. 199-235), Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Stein, N.L., & Trabasso, T. (1992). The organization of emotional experience: creating links among emotion, thinking, language, and intentional action.  Cognition & Emotion, 6(3-4), 225-244.

Stein, N.L., Trabasso, T., Liwag, M. (1993). The representation and organization of emotional experience: unfolding the emotion episode.  In: M. Lewis & J.M. Haviland (Eds.) Handbook of emotions (pp. 279-300), New York: Guilford.

Wagner, A.R. (1969). Frustrative nonreward a variety of punishment.  In: B.A. Campbell &  R.M.Church (Eds.) Punishment & aversive behavior (pp. 157-181), New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.