What happened? Why did it happen? How does it impact my goals, values, and beliefs? How important is this to me? Are my goals advanced or thwarted? What could be lost? Who is responsible? What can I do now? These are some of the questions that naturally flash through our minds as we first notice, and then reflect on the various important events in our lives. We naturally appraise events in an effort to explain our losses. We also appraise events to define the problem that has to be solved by the coping strategy we adopt.
- Explaining Events
- Defining the problem.
Assessment, judgment, analysis, reflection, meditation, consideration, and re-thinking can all describe thoughtful consideration of events, actions, and alternatives.
When we suffer an important loss, we naturally seek to attribute blame and identify alterative responses. We can blame ourselves, others, the environment, chance, all of these or none of these. We examine our sense of justice as we decide if the event and actions were fair or unfair. We consider what we can change and what we cannot change. We look to the past, present, and future.
When an an important event occurs we are inclined to solve the emerging problem or seize the new opportunity. Assessment is the work of defining the problem. It is the first step in finding a solution.
What is at Stake?
Our ever-vigilant senses scan a continuous stream of information across the environment and rapidly judge what is important and what is unimportant. We quickly orient our attention toward observations that are relevant based on our personal judgments of what we hold to be interesting or important. Some of this happens instantly and involuntarily. For example, the startle reaction is involuntary and serves to draw our attention to loud noises and other unexpected disturbances. Surprise is an emotion similar to the startle reaction that includes a more complex cognitive evaluation; surprise can be spoiled by anticipation, but startle cannot be suppressed. Fear also draws our attention to potential threats quickly and often involuntarily. To protect us against physical threats, our emotional brains are wired to defend even before we comprehend. Our more careful analysis can help us sort out true dangers from false alarms.
The first appraisal decision is to determine if the event we observed is relevant to our values, goals, beliefs, self, or motivations. If the event is not relevant then we have no stake in the outcome and the event does not elicit emotions or induce stress. We don't interrupt our present activities to attend to these irrelevant events. But if our safety, goals, beliefs, self-concept, or needs are threatened, the event is appraised as important; we interrupt our activities, and attend immediately to the situation. Emotions and their accompanying stress serve to interrupt our routine activities and focus our attention on the most urgent and important situation. Accompanying physiological changes may prepare us to react quickly. The specific emotion that results depends on the nature (plot) of the appraisal. The strength of the emotion depends on our appraisal of the importance or impact of the event. For example, we may be having a routine conversation when someone makes a remark we find offensive. The offense is likely to make us angry because we appraise it as unjust and harmful. If we appraise it as only a mild insult, we may become irritated or annoyed. These are the most mild forms of anger. If we appraise it as a strong insult, we may become incensed, outraged, or livid. These are strong forms of anger. If we appraise the offense as not personal, not credible, not threatening, or not serious we can always decide not to take the bait. Here we can choose to ignore the provocation and avoid a dominance contest.
Loss, Threat, or Challenge
Relevant events often involve an actual loss that occurred in the past or present or a potential future loss. Harm and loss describe damage that has already happened. This is a loss that occurred in the past and may still have relevance in the present. Threat refers to a potential future harm or loss. A challenge describes the decision to overcome obstacles and reduce a threat or attain some opportunity. Richard Lazarus proposes that loss, threat, and challenge represent three distinct types of stress and associated coping strategies.
Once an important event is recognized, we can direct our attention toward reducing or mitigating the impact of the loss and its accompanying stress. The coping strategy we choose will depend on our analysis of the situation, including the nature of the event, the time available, and the resources we can apply to reducing, preventing, or overcoming it.
Appraisals and Reappraisals
Multiple appraisals take place over time. Our emotional brain instantly calculates a response to important events before we can engage our cognitive thoughts. Even after we notice our gut reactions, our first thoughts may not fully consider all that has happened, all of the consequences and implications, and all of the evidence and factors contributing to the event. Over time we can reflect on the event and reappraise it. This may alter our response, change our beliefs, modify our goals, or cause us to reexamine our values. For example, you may decide after a long period of reflection that you blamed others unfairly for some incident and now you would like to apologize to them.
How we feel influences the decisions we make. Our mind consults our body along with our brain.
Emotions Reveal Appraisals
Emotions interrupt and alert us to important events. They are accurate indicators of what we truly regard as important. The core relational theme of each emotion is constant; if we know the emotion we know the theme that evoked it and the story it tells. Because our emotions depend on our appraisals, knowing the resulting emotions can tell us a lot about the thinking that went into the appraisal. Emotions help us read minds; they provide valuable clues to what is truly important to us and to others. For example:
- We become surprised because the event was unexpected. Therefore we had no foreknowledge or forewarning of the event.
- We are afraid because we perceive the threat of imminent danger. What did we observe? Why does it represent a threat?
- We are anxious because of an uncertain threat. What are we worrying about?
- We become angry because we blame someone for an unjust loss. What is the loss? What goal is thwarted? How important is it? What is our sense of justice? Why do we judge their behavior as unjust? Why do we choose someone to blame?
- We feel guilty because we have failed to meet the another's standard of behavior. What standards were not met? Who values those standards? Are the standards well founded?
- We feel shame because we failed to meet our own standards. What is the standard? Is it well founded? Does it support our values? Did we do our best?
- We gloat when we are pleased about another person's mishap. Why do we enjoy seeing their mistake? Why did we gloat rather than feel compassion?
- We hate when we dislike others enough to blame them for our own troubles. What is the true cause of or troubles? Why do we dislike them? Why don't we respond with empathy and compassion? Why do we blame others?
- We are sad because we have suffered a loss. What did we lose? Why is it important to us?
- We become depressed when we lose hope. What caused us to lose hope?
- We envy someone because we want what they have. Who do we envy? What do they have? Why do we want it? Why do we believe it is valuable? What does that tell us about our motives, goals, and values?
- We are jealous because we fear we are unloved. Why do we feel unloved? What does that tell us about our self?
- We become disgusted when we encounter something toxic. What do we find toxic? Why?
- We are happy because we are progressing toward a goal. What is the goal? What do we regard as progress? Why is the goal important?
- We are proud because we are feeling good about ourselves. What did we do that we judged as worthy? Is it worthy? Is this a genuine pride with some substantial and significant basis, or is it a false pride based on an inflated ego or an unworthy goal? Does it improve our stature or only our status? What does that tell us about our values?
- We are relieved when a threat has passed. What was the threat? What were we in danger of losing? Why do we perceive it as valuable? How was the threat avoided or overcome?
- We are hoping for the best. What is the basis of our optimistic outlook?
- We are in love! Who do we love? Why do we resonate together? Why are we attracted to them? Why do we care about them?
- We are grateful for the unselfish kindness toward us. Why do we value the gift or consideration?
- We pity someone; we feel compassion for them. Why are we moved by their suffering?
- Ambivalence reveals unresolved conflict between two or more goals. What goals are conflicting? What values can resolve the conflict?
Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis, by Richard S. Lazarus
Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, by Antonio Damasio
The Nature of Emotions, Plutchik, R, The American Scientist, Volume 89, Issue 4, 2001