Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Social appraisals of self in interaction

According to Lewis (1987) the infant and toddler (aged 18-30 months) during social ontogenetic development acquires an internalized knowledge of social objects, supporting the conceptualization of self as receptive social object (allowing formation and expression of a primary appraisal) and self as causal social agent (allowing formation and expression of a secondary appraisal). Infants as young as four-five months of age are likely able to detect motivational discrepancies (Alessandri, Sullivan, & Lewis, 1990). In fact four month olds after learning a seemingly rewarding and engaging contingent task, which was composed of pulling a string to view a color slide display of a smiling infant’s face and to listen to a recording of children’s singing a song, experienced disappointment after losing their ability and sense for influencing (control) and experiencing competence (achievement) derived after the contingency task concluded unexpectedly. The infants’ facial expressions and increased salivary cortisol levels suggested the experience of sadness with premature conclusion of a contingency task and goal disruption (Lewis & Ramsay, 2005). Disruptions in a contingency task also initially increased contingency pulling reflecting increasing frustration. As infants’ contingency pulling decreased, evidence of anger increased (Sullivan & Lewis, 2003). In fact the reward-associated contingency task was associated with calming, attentiveness, positive facial expressions, and increased RSA (VNA) (reflecting increased vagal tone and modulatory effects over heart rate); whereas decreasing contingency was associated with increasing frustration, negative emotion, and concurrent increases in RSA(VNA) and heart rate. Extinction of the contingency task (like removal of reward) was associated with negative emotion (either anger or sadness), decreasing RSA(VNA) and increasing heart rate (Lewis, Hitchcock, & Sullivan, 2004). (As noted and fully referenced below, failure to deliver reward when anticipated in operant conditioning is known as negative punishment. Negative punishment is also associated with experiences of sadness or anger in response to loss of reward.) Six month olds, who were unable to elicit an expected smile from their mothers during a still face procedure, emitted either facial expressions reflective of sadness coupled with increases in salivary cortisol or of anger with increased behavioral attempts to engage mother in social interactions and unchanged salivary cortisol levels (Lewis & Ramsay, 2005). Such findings in total suggest that young infants have an internal model of how they expect or would like their social environment to respond to them during social interactions and are able to detect and respond to breaches in expectations from this model.

According to Higgins (1991) during the first year infants start to understand how language represents persons, things, actions, state of mind, etc. and can anticipate the responses of others. Accordingly by 18 months the infant can anticipate the progression of positive and negative outcomes (for reward and punishment) as well as the absence of negative and positive outcomes (for perceived reward and sense of well-being in absence of punishment and perceived unpleasantness with loss of reward) respectively. Between 18-24 months of age a scheme, an inner mental structure, develops, which represents the relations between action sequences, i.e. between self-other and, within this configuration, self as causal agent and object. This schematic representation is implicit and encapsulated in a primary appraisal. This process will be elaborated below.

According to Richard Lazarus (1990, 1991ab) a cognitive appraisal system is characterized by two components, primary and secondary appraisals.The primary appraisal component is associated with schematic processing (1991b). Accordingly the primary appraisal system involves the monitoring of interpersonal interactions relevant to social goal attainment and its impact on one’s sense of well-being (1990, 1991a). During a certain number of encounters and periods of time personality variables generate primary appraisals, which produce immediate effects and changes in physiological arousal and long term effects on somatic health or on illness (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). The secondary appraisal component is associated with conceptual processing, i.e. intentional thought-associated with reasoning (1991b). It also involves thought relating to coping with troubling interactions (1990, 1991a). In response to a number of experiences and occurrences, values, commitments, or beliefs spawn expression of secondary appraisals, which produce immediate effects by generating positive or negative feelings and long term effects on morale and well-being (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, p. 305).

The following discussion will elaborate and expand on Richard Lazarus’s model of primary and secondary appraisals with supportive research and analysis of Nancy Stein’s research lab on motivation and this author’s clinical observations on appraisals of self in interaction.

As referenced earlier implicit thought, cognitive self-schema, or primary appraisals of self in interaction represent the state of satiation of secondary motivational needs. Some of these are noted in the following table.

Secondary Social Motivation Negative Self-Appraisals Positive Self-Appraisals
Affiliation-Love Motive I am an outsider & don’t belong (2)
I can’t trust (anyone) (1,3)
I am not lovable (2,3)
I am unwanted
I am alone
I belongI am able to trust
I am lovable (3)
I am wanted
I am a part of.
Control Over Outcomes Motive I am scared
I can’t protect myself (3)
I am powerless (3)
I am helpless (1)
I am unsafe
I am calm
I am able to protect myself
I am empowered
I am in control (3)
I am safe (3).
Personal Sense of Achievement Motive I’m never good enough (2,3)
I can never do anything right (1)
There is something wrong with me (2)
I am a disappointment (3)
I am good enough
If I try, I can do it right
There is nothing wrong with me
I am okay the way I am (2,3).
Validation of Self by Another I am not important (2,3)
I am different
I have to please others
I am not respectedI am bad
I am worthless (3)
I am ashamed of myself (1)
I am to blame
I am important
I am like everyone else
I can please myself
I, my ideas, & my needs are respected
I am good (3)
I have value
I am honorable (3)
I am not to blame
Subjective Sense of Well Being Motive (4) I am empty
I am in need for (love, validation, control, etc.)
I am damaged (or wounded) (3)
I am insecure
I am in pain
I am complete
I am satisfiedI am whole or healed (3)
I am secure
I am healthy.

Sources: (1) Goulding & Goulding, 1979; (2) Goulding & Goulding, 1989; (3) Shapiro, 2001; (4) Diener, 2000.

The primary appraisal process is based on the monitoring and conceptualizing of the state of match-mismatch of social motivational expectation for social reward satiation and an outcome of positive sense of well-being, i.e. what should have happened or what didn’t happen (Stein & Liwag, 1997). With goal-outcome match, i.e. wanting something (i.e. love, control, achievement, validation, and sense of well-being) and getting it, there is positive self-schema or primary appraisal, positive sense of well-being and the later positive reinforcing emotion of happiness. (Match of social motivational expectation can also be likened to perceived sense of reward and positive sense of well-being.) With goal-outcome-mismatch there is goal failure, i.e. wanting something and not getting it (Stein & Liwag, 1997). It is manifested in a negative self-schema or primary appraisal and visceral autonomic arousal (i.e. an aversive sense in the stomach, increased heart rate, tightness sensation in the neck, increased tension, increased skin conductance response and sweating, etc.) and later negative emotions of sadness, anger, fear, shame, guilt, etc (clinical observations). In other words the cognitive “discrepancy (generated by the initial mismatch) produces a visceral arousal and it is the combination of that arousal with ongoing evaluative cognition that produces the subjective experience of an emotion” (Mandler, 1990, p. 28). It is likely that visceral responses to the match-mismatch occur very early in the course of social ontogenetic development.

As noted earlier according to Stein & Trabasso (1997) negative emotional experience is a reactive stress response to the mismatch for fulfillment of positive outcomes of social motivational need. If we elaborate on Stein and colleagues model we can better understand that fear is a reactive primary emotion (or Class 1 primordial emotion associated with survival-see Barrett & Campos, 1987) to a breach in the expectation for a sense of safety and well-being. It is also likely stimulated expression by primary appraisals of self in interaction such as “I am helpless.” “I am powerless.” “I am unsafe.” “I can’t protect myself.” Withdrawing the source of fear is experienced as rewarding relief (McClelland, 1985). A child’s secondary emotions of anger and sadness (Class 2 emotions associated with goal relevance-see Barrett & Campos, 1987) are reflected in their responses to failures of goal attainment and of acquiring a desired internal state of social reward satiation (Stein, Trabasso, & Liwag, 1993). Sadness is associated with loss of a significant social relationship or desired object (Stein & Trabasso, 1992; Stein & Liwag, 1997), primary appraisals relating to separation and secondary appraisals for abandoning and ceasing plans and behaviors associated with goal acquisition. Anger is associated with loss of desired possessions, conflict with another’s goals, unwillingness to give up control, primary appraisals relating to control over outcomes, and also secondary appraisals for coping and defense for overcoming goal-outcome failure and of generating a plan for attaining the goal (for love/affiliation, control, achievement, validation, and sense of well-being) (Stein, Trabasso, & Liwag, 2000). Emotions like shame and guilt (Class 3 emotions associated with one’s appreciation of the regard from others-see Barrett & Campos, 1987) are responses to breaches in expectations for respect and validation of others and reflected in primary appraisals of self in interaction such as “I am to blame.” “I am ashamed.” I am not important.” “I am bad.” Interestingly the goal for positive outcome-mismatch is also operant conditioning’s negative punishment (Rachlin, 1976) and frustrative nonreward (Wagner, 1969; Gray, 1975), i.e. the rewarding qualities relating to matched fulfillment of motivational need is not delivered when expected and therefore results in experiences of sadness or anger with the loss of reward. The goal for removal of negative outcome-match (i.e. with the cessation of fear) is also operant conditioning’s removal of positive punishment, i.e. the aversive qualities of an added threatening stimulus is not delivered when expected and therefore rewarding relief is experienced (Gray, 1975; Rachlin, 1976; McClelland, 1985). In summary the match-mismatch for expectation-outcome is summarized in the cognitive self-schema and primary appraisal and this implicit cognition underlies the development of corresponding emotion and defensive cognitions or secondary appraisals underlying defensive behaviors and future symptom development and expression.

Event-Related Formation of Primary Appraisals of Self in Interaction

Often a single event or episode can be linked with numerous cognitive self-schemas and many events can share similar cognitive self-schemas. The following depicts parent-child interaction and its impact on the development of cumulative appraisals of self in interaction.

Event-Related Formation of Primary Appraisal of Self in Interaction

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The picture shows a boy, whose frustration with his baby brother leads him to hit him to stop him from interfering in his play. His mother intercedes and blames the boy because he hit his brother. Due to prior child maltreatment and cumulative frustration and loss of control over events in her own life, this mother overreacts to her eldest son by lowering his pants and spanking him in an attempt to get him to behave. The boy, who feels insecure and unsure with his mother’s attack, has primary appraisals of self in interaction (of loss of love) “I am unlovable” (of loss of control) “I am helpless” when my mom smacks me. As this mother yells at her son, i.e. telling him that he is bad for hitting his brother, that he needs to care for his little brother and not to hurt him, the boy’s primary appraisal of self in interaction is (of loss of validation) “I am to blame” and “I am not important.” After the event the boy is left with negative sense of well-being encapsulated in the primary appraisals of “I am in pain.” “I am empty.”

In response to the loss of love and appraisal “I am unlovable” “I am in pain” and “I am empty,” the boy might have experienced anger to try to reinstate social reward by exerting control over outcomes. He might have also experienced sadness in response to the loss of love and abandoned attempts at seeking love from mother. This anger would have been associated with secondary appraisals of “I hate him” and “It’s his fault.” Experienced sadness would have been associated with secondary appraisals of “What’s the use, no one loves me.”

According to Winter & Kuiper (1997) cognitive self-schemas (or primary appraisals) can also be understood as being the first and second processing stages (of 3) where perception, selective attention, and encoding processes all interact to generate a cognitive appraisal. After this, during the second stage, either a positive or negative self-relevant evaluative judgment is developed with core relational themes (noted above as primary appraisals associated with social motivational needs). Finally the third and output stage is characterized by emotion and coping behaviors (brought on by secondary appraisals). Accordingly cognitive self-schemas not only guide the processing of information but also, once conceptualized, influence and guide later perception, attention, appraisal, and memory processes (Winter & Kuiper, 1997).

With time and repeated experience during different events and occurrences repeating formation and expression of primary appraisals of self in interaction become conceptualized and concretized in self-concept and in a working model of self in interaction with another. This conceptualization underlies the formation of expectations and becomes permeated in an attitude and later implicitly drives problem-solving and behavior. This process also helps to form holistic assessments of self in interaction that underlies the later development of self-concept and (along with judgments about other). It is encapsulated in theory of mind from the age of eight years and beyond. This age is significant for it is at eight years of age when a child can fully internalize the reference of another. This is in contrast to the 3-4 year old, who needs cue-guided reminders of another’s reference during self-other interactions (Astington, 1991). For instance it is at eight years of age that shame can be experienced independently of direct self-other social interactions (Harter, 1999, p. 103). This ability for conceptual other-perspective-taking demonstrates developmental capacity for metarepresentation (Bretherton, 1991). Therefore cognitive self-schemas or primary appraisals of self in interaction not only provide conceptualizations as to how to describe cognitive synchrony-discrepancy or presence-absence of positive outcomes (Higgins, 1991), but also once conceptualized (in response to their repeated cumulative experience) can define the holistic self in interaction, which will later influence decision-making cognition and behaviors during social interactions.

An Example of Primary & Secondary Appraisal Processes during Early Traumatic Stress Interactions

Cognitive self-schemas also underlie traumatic emotional processing. The case in the following chart illustrates how early childhood trauma memory might be implicitly processed by a seven year old boy. In this situation a man reflected on an earlier childhood memory. As a boy he was repeatedly physically abused by his mother’s boyfriends and subjected to persistent and enduring emotional neglect by his mother. He made an early decision to allow expression of anger to certain men who were reminiscent of his mother’s boyfriends, and to exclude his anger at his mother for having emotionally abandoned him time and time again in order to sustain positive rewarding aspects of love for her. As an adult he repeatedly got into fights. His aggressiveness landed him in and out of jail. His relationships with women were characterized by romantic seductive interludes and were dampened by his fits of anger and domestic violence.

An Example of Primary and Secondary Appraisals

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The man might have made an early decision to retreat from contentious relationships with other adult males and to avoid aggression with them. This might have allowed expression of his channeling his unprocessed aggression to younger children. He could have also accepted the emotional deficits in his relationship with his mother. If he had, this coping strategy might have interfered in his adult relationships with women and interfered in his capacity for adult intimacy.

It is in this manner that stress-related socioemotional thought progresses. Most current therapies, like symptom focused cognitive-behavioral therapies for anger management, focus on modulating the secondary appraisal to stop the behavior. But the primary appraisal and its associated emotion is usually overlooked in the course of current therapies, and according to the PTSD section of this web site, remain trapped in consolidation processes. Despite symptom focused therapy’s modulatory effects on the secondary appraisal, the individual often continues to be unwittingly influenced by the trapped primary appraisal and emotion of self in interaction. It is evidenced in misplaced nonproductive emotionally triggering thoughts, depressed feelings, anger and aggression, compulsions, etc. These symptoms can in certain situations be successfully treated by psychopharmacological therapies. On the other hand therapies, like psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapies, cognitive therapy for PTSD, EMDR, therapies I have provided, etc. seek to treat and encourage the recall of one’s responses to single (source) events. These responses are associated with primary conditioned responses, like primary appraisals of self in interaction and visceral, and emotional responses. Allowing verbal expression of primary appraisals typically reduces expression of later coping secondary conditioned responses, like secondary appraisals and associated arousal and emotion.

This is clarified and supported in the animal research, which very vividly demonstrates that protein synthesis inhibition in the amygdala just prior to secondary conditioned stimulus (CS2) expression does little to affect later secondary conditioned response (CR2) expression. However, protein sythesis inhibition in the amygdala just prior to primary conditioned stimulus (CS1) expression does indeed affect both later primary (CR1) and secondary (CR2) response expression (Debiec, Doyere, Nader, & LeDoux, 2006).

It is this author’s opinion that the propensity for selected secondary appraisal is likely guided by genetic make-up, i.e. each brain and central nervous system has its unique genetic imprint and propensity for response. This is supported in neuroscience research. For instance the coping strategy and trait for stress-induced anger reactivity and hostility and reactive increases in diastolic blood pressure seem to have a link with family history (Lawler, Kline, Seabrook, Krishnamoorthy, Anderson, et al. 1998). This coping emotion (which is followed by secondary appraisal development) seems to leave its biological imprint in cumulatively experienced physiological arousal (e.g. increased blood pressure) and emotion (e.g. increased reactivity for anxiety, aggression, or depression). For example, in response to helplessness evoking public speaking stress and a Stroop conflict task, men, who tend to react in anger and inhibit their aggressiveness behaviorally, are more apt to increase their heart rate, systolic blood pressure, beta-adrenergic circulation, and blood flow, which lowers vascular resistance (Bongard, al’Absi & Lovallo, 1998) as well as decrease their diastolic blood pressure (Harralson, Suarez, & Lawler, 1997) respectively. Passive coping of stress-evoked anger, i.e. preparing an individual for goal withdrawal and disengagement, tends to increase diastolic blood pressure in women (Harralson et al., 1997). Individuals biased for responding and experiencing anger and who allow its behavioral expression, tend to produce increased serum adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) concentrations, and to sustain increases in heart rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure (al’Absi, Bongard, & Lovallo, 2000; Singh, Petrides, Gold, Chrousos, & Deuster, 1999) as well as experience increased sensitivity to and longer lasting diastolic blood pressure reactivity (Fredrickson, Maynard, Helms, Haney, et al., 2000). Increased anger reactivity and hostility “point to the likelihood that those characterized by (as having) high levels of mistrust and suspicion anticipate trouble (in advance of) interpersonal situations, even before they have any overt indication that there is cause for alarm” (Davis, Matthews, & McGrath, 2000, p. 23). This expectation model (likely fostered by early childhood breaches in social motivational expectation) would explain the nature of hostile affect and cynicism underlying hostile responses shared by family members (Weidner, Rice, Knox, Ellison, Province, et al., 2000). Increased aggressiveness, anger reactivity and persistence is also associated with decreases in salivary cortisol (McBurnett, Lahey, Rathouz, & Loeber, 2000), a stress hormone which tends to modulate defensive responses by decreasing active approach and increased avoidance behaviors (Roelofs, Elzinga, & Rotteveel, 2005).

To support the above discussion a recent fMRI neuroimaging study monitoring  responses to rejection (Eisenberger, Way, Taylor, Welch & Lieberman, 2007) found angry aggressive individuals (as measured by MAOA-L gene expression and aggressive behavioral responses), whose task-dependent expectations and attempts for social affiliation and sense of belonging were breached, responded with enhanced dorsal anterior cingulate cortex activation. This region, as noted in the Future Direction/Social Reward section of this web site, is associated with social reward omission and the experience of physical as well as emotional pain.

As noted earlier anger-associated goal seeking persistence is associated with angry emotion or active emotional coping; whereas sadness-associated goal abandonment is associated with the emotion of sadness or passive emotional coping (Bandler, Key, Floyd, & Price, 2000a; Bandler, Price, & Key, 2000b). Sad mood induction and an experimentally evoking stressful task in a healthy subject population is associated with reactive increases in circulating serum cortisol (Brown, Sirota, Niaura, & Engebretson, 1993), in heart rate and systolic blood pressure (Hughes & Stoney, 2000; Jonas & Lando, 2000), and in passive coping behaviors referenced above (Price, Carmichael, & Drevets, 1996).

In conclusion there are different physiological responses in the adult that are associated with defensive coping cognition and emotion, which facilitates goal attainment or abandonment of social motivational need. The cumulative effect of each, or in combination, i.e. hostile individuals harboring depressive tendencies, may well have negative consequences that can adversely affect future health and well-being (Harburg, Julius, Kaciroti, Gleiberman, & Schork, 2003) and predispose individuals at-risk for developing coronary heart disease (Ravaja, Kauppinen, & Keltikangas-Jarvinen, 2000).

In summary the human is likely be hard-wired for satisfying certain social motivational needs. A match is satisfying; a mismatch kicks off an acute stress response, which may later become incorporated in a chronic stress response. The nature of the match-mismatch is initially represented in the primary appraisal and associated physiological and emotional responses. Reexperiencing them time and time again contributes to the development of a theory of mind and implied self-concept. When experienced with each event these primary appraisals have the capacity for generating emotion and secondary appraisals which are coping cognitions. These responses are evident in observing one’s behavior during social interactions. The propensity of response, especially for secondary appraisals and associated responses are likely genetically predetermined. It is also likely that one’s selection of primary appraisals is also preprogrammed but there is no method to validate this type of assumption at this point in time.

** Note: Interestingly, according to Alexander Romanovich Luria (1973) the rate of neuronal growth in the frontal lobes rises sharply from 3-4 years and then 7-8 years of age. Noted representational changes in understanding and internalizing the internal reference of another probably, in part, reflect a manifestation of these growth spurts. A future link will help to evaluate the brain regions involved in this representational appraisal system. For instance taking a cue-directed perspective of another in evaluating oneself in social interactions involves simultaneous regional activity and interaction within the ventral posterior cingulate cortex and ventral perigenual anterior cingulate (Johnson, Baxter, Wilder, Pipe, Heiserman, & Prigatano, 2002). This is significant, as per the research of B.A. Vogt and colleagues, both regions of the cingulate cortex (in concert with the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) or BA 11m) share P.E.T. regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) patterns and morphological neural interconnectivity with one another in the human and nonhuman primate (Vogt, Vogt, & Laureys, 2006; personal communication).


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