Definition of a cognitive appraisal

Written by aruna murthy anaparti
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Definition of a cognitive appraisal
Our emotions are based on how we perceive a particular situation. (MRT vom Schädel image by Marem from

Cognitive appraisal reinforces the fact that our emotions are based on how we perceive a particular situation. Different situations evoke different kinds of emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, joy, empathy or sadness. Sometimes, a particular situation may be perceived differently by different people and trigger quite dissimilar reactions. For instance, when someone gets promoted, this incident may induce anger in those who feel they have been treated unjustly, while those close to the person being promoted may feel happy for him. The basis of cognitive appraisal was laid by renowned psychologist Richard Lazarus, starting in the 1960s, and was essentially explained through the concept of primary and secondary appraisal. He proposed these concepts by describing how stress is perceived by people.

Lazarus' Theory

Richard Lazarus first defined the cognitive appraisal theory of emotions. He purported that a situation is considered threatening or stressful depending on personal perception of the event or conditions by the person who is in that situation. He explained that cognitive appraisal processes play a major role in how a person reacts in different situations. A person would react with anger, guilt or joy depending on how he sees a given situation. Considering this, cognitive appraisal can be defined as the process by which a person categorises a situation and its aspects in relation to whether it is potentially threatening or not. The cognitive appraisal process can be divided into three categories: primary, secondary and reappraisal.

Primary Appraisal

Primary appraisal can be categorised as being irrelevant, benign-positive or stressful. In case a situation is not perceived to be detrimental in any way, the primary appraisal is seen as irrelevant, as the outcome of the situation does not affect us in any way. A situation is perceived as benign-positive when the possible outcome is positive and likely to help us in some way. The emotions related to this appraisal include joy, exhilaration, love and peacefulness. A situation is said to be stressful if the outcome is likely to be negative and in the form of challenge, threat or harm/loss. The emotions associated with this appraisal include fear, anger and sadness.

Secondary Appraisal

When we are faced with an adverse situation, something needs to be done to control it and avoid any subsequent repercussions. Secondary appraisal follows primary appraisal of a situation. This necessarily includes evaluation of the situation and a suitable reaction. This essentially addresses what can be done to cope with a particular situation. The reaction to the situation is decided by carefully analysing what is at stake and what can be done to reduce negative consequences.


Reappraisal is rethinking the strategy to cope with a situation in view of new information provided by circumstances. This may add to or relieve stress depending on what the new information is. For instance, if you are not ready for an interview, a postponement in the date will relieve the stress; however, if the interview is taken earlier than decided, it will add to the stress.

Emotions and Cognitive Appraisal

Cognitive appraisal theory suggests that your reaction to a situation is based on the way it is interpreted by you and not on the situation itself. Thus, a situation which is stressful for someone may not be so for others. For instance, school examinations may be stressful for some students, while some may perceive it as a challenge. Lazarus states that emotions are the outcome of cognitive appraisal of the situation, followed by physiological response and suitable action to cope with the situation. For instance, seeing a snake will naturally be seen as a threat, followed by rapid breathing and heart rate, and finally resulting in the person running away from it. For those not afraid of snakes, however, seeing one may be followed by keen interest and the person angling for a better view.

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