Appraising Appraisal Theory and the Causation of Emotions

Laura E Fox
10 min readSep 26, 2022
“Axon of Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man,” by Santiago Ramón y Cajal’, Madrid

What causes us to have differentiating emotions in response to the same objects or events? Appraisal theorists seek to address this question by arguing that it is our appraisal of a situation which causes us to have an emotional response that is unique to us. That is, through an analysis of stimuli or events, we rapidly undergo the process of evaluating the relevance and implications of an object, our ability to cope in response to a changing situation and the impact the external stimulus has on both our internal values and standards and social values and norms. However, there is debate about whether appraisal is either a fluid process or a structured episode made up of responding components. Further, whether appraisal itself causes emotions as a trigger or formulate part of emotional experiences. This essay will consider these contrasting arguments and will argue in favour of Scherer’s Component Process Model (CPM) and corresponding Sequential Evaluation Checks (SEC) while also drawing strength from Leibniz’s Law and the Temporal Parts Argument to support the conclusion that appraisal is both the causation and a part of emotions.

A snapshot of Appraisal Theory
Appraisal theories are divided into two broad camps: Classical v Construction. Classical appraisal, otherwise known as fixed appraisal, theorists argue that emotions are responses triggered by cognitive evaluation mechanisms that produce a subjective fixed outcome that constitutes an emotion. Classical appraisal theory is essentially based in the biological sciences and attempts to reverse-engineer the construction of emotion by evaluating the responses to questions of emotional experiences. However, this method has been disputed as being prone to linguistic restrictions of broadly defined categories of emotion.

In contrast, constructionists argue that our emotions are informed by a process of constructive interpretation founded on an internal analysis which results in differentiating emotional responses. That is, there is no distinct causal claim — rather that there is a multitude of interacting parts that inform our final response. This internal analysis is based on both intrinsic (genetic and learned preferences) and extrinsic (needs, desires, goals and values) appraisal, otherwise known as transactional appraisal. The transactional appraisal model is a structural model of appraisal and was first developed by Folkman and Lazarus in 1984 and provides for three levels of appraisal: Primary, Secondary and Reappraisal.

Figure 1: Transactional Model of Stress and Coping

Structural models help us to understand the relationship between initial appraisals and the emotional outcome. Core to the transactional model theory is both primary and secondary appraisal. Primary appraisal focuses on the motivational relevance of a situation to the intrinsic needs of a person, with those needs encompassing a person’s well-being, goals and values. The stronger the significance of a situation or object to a person’s needs, the stronger the emotional response. Secondary appraisal is concerned with evaluating a person’s resources, their options for coping with the situation (problem-focused coping v emotional-focused coping) and who or what is to be held accountable for the changing environment. The consensus in support of the structural appraisal model is that, in theory, it allows for the prediction of a person’s emotional response based on how that individual assesses a situation. For example, a person appraises that another has wronged them, and therefore they experience anger. To put this logically, appraisal in a structured format is the cause of emotion: A ->E.

However, others have argued that the structural model does not entirely account for the ever-changing fluidity nature of emotions and remains largely silent regarding the specific micro-operations involved in making an appraisal. In response to this argument, process-orientated models were developed to show that other elements of cognitive processing are involved in bringing forth emotional responses and that there is an additional layer of depth concerning the operational components that formulate an appraisal. This leads us to discuss the two most predominant process models: Scherer’s Component Process Model (CPM) and his corresponding process of Sequential Evaluation Checks (SEC).

The Component Process Model and Sequential Evaluation Checks
Scherer’s development of the CPM is founded on the argument that emotions are not a product but a process that is triggered following an evaluation of the relevance of a situation or stimuli to a person. This contrasts with the structural theory above, which provides that emotions are the end product of a process. He breaks this process down to five components, which operate as a person’s sub-systems of evaluation in response to either an internal or external object or event. These five sub-systems consist of; appraisal, somatic physiological responses, motivational evaluation, motor behaviours and subjective experience.

Figure 2. The architecture of CPM

Scherer provides that the central elements of the five sub-systems seek to address four significant appraisal objectives. These objectives consist of four key questions, each with additional sub-checks. The four core questions can be summarised as relevance, implications, coping potential and normative significance. These questions, combined with their corresponding sub-checks, inform the additional layer of processing known as Sequential Evaluation Checks and are summarised in Figure 3. And when combined with the over-arching architecture of CPM, Scherer’s SEC forms a detailed map of how the process of emotions operates. Figure 4 shows the final version of Scherer’s CPM model and how the SEC interacts with each component.

Figure 3. Sequential Evaluation Checks
Figure 4. Scherer’s CPM and SEC appraisal process

Further, Scherer has argued that despite the complexity and multiplicity of this process, CPM, along with the corresponding SEC, operates independently, seamlessly and mostly undetected. Therefore, this model provides that appraisal is a process that operates on varying levels of conscious processing, which continuously interact to produce differentiating emotional episodes that correspond with each rapid and successive appraisal. According to this model, appraisal can occur on either:

a) a biological level, where responses are genetically determined;

b) a schematic level, based on both unconscious memories, or ‘memory traces’ from early development, which now inform automatic and unconscious responses;

c) an associative level, whereby the brain forms either an unconscious or a deliberate association with a stimulus or event; and

d) a conceptual level, which involves consciousness and low-level calculation, sometimes informed by existing knowledge or cultural systems.

Given the intricate complexity of the CPM and SEC framework, some have questioned whether Scherer’s process is more structural, requiring each step of the appraisal process to be checked off before the next step can operate and, in the end, produce a fixed pre-defined emotional outcome. Scherer has refuted this by arguing that appraisal is not entirely linear but is fluidly coordinated and capable of different sequential combinations, with each combination producing a distinct emotion that is unique only to that pattern. He aptly addresses this challenge in his 2009 paper by providing:

How does the CPM, via the mechanism described above, predict specific emotions? Contrary to basic emotion theories, the CPM does not assume the existence of a limited set of discrete emotions or affect programmes, but considers the possibility of an infinite number of different types of emotion episode.
— Scherer (2009)

The result is that while emotion itself can be seen as a process, the effect of differentiating emotions is the outcome of the unique appraisal profile experienced by each person. To summarise, Scherer’s appraisal theory accounts for the differentiation of emotions by appraisal due to each distinct pattern of appraisal; and each individual’s interpretation of events causes that individual differences of emotional responses and that it is the events themselves that trigger appraisal, and therefore the process of formulating emotions. In essence, Scherer argues that appraisal is a process of emotions, whereby the process is made up of components and can be formulated as E = A+B (where B are the other components).

The incompatible role theory
While Scherer’s formula accounts for the differentiating of emotions, there remains debate around whether appraisal is central to the causation of emotions (A ->E) or if appraisal is just a component of the emotional process (E = A+B). This problem is known as the incompatible role and the central argument by critics, namely Ellsworth, is that appraisal cannot be a causation if it continues to be part of emotion — that is, an egg cannot be the cause of a cake if it is an ingredient. Moors expands on this argument in detail by providing the following formula:

The problem of the incompatible role theory is that an object (in this case, appraisal) cannot cause and be apart of the process, essentially — that an individual thing cannot exist in two parts. This argument is primarily embedded in ontological principles of Leibniz’s Law, which provides that:

1. If X and Y have all the same properties, then X is identical to Y.

So if Ellsworth’s egg is X and the cake is Y, then the egg cannot be said to be identical to the cake. But this example seems to over-simplify the problem. It overlooks the multiple issues surrounding the nature of molecular parts, or in the case of appraisal — the molecular checks involved in SEC. For example, if one were to deconstruct the molecular structure of a cake, they would certainly find elements of the egg that originally went in throughout the entire body of the cake. Does the egg cease to exist? If so, at what point does it cease to exist? Or does it exist within the cake despite formulating part of its initial construction? The problem with this argument is that it only accounts for spatially coincident objects but does not account for the argument that two objects that differ in their categorical properties may still exist at the same time, which is what would be the plausible conclusion to Ellsworth’s egg problem. The egg does not possess the same categorical properties as the cake, but it nonetheless continues to exist within the cake.

Can an appraisal that initially triggered the process of formulating an emotion (CPM), for example, at the relevance check of the process, be considered the same as the appraisal that has passed the relevance check and is at the normative significance stage? I would argue yes and also no, and say that the initial causation (A¹) maintains elements of continuity with the appraisal that formulates a component of emotion during the time of the emotional process. Further, just because the initial appraisal stage evolves to take on different properties throughout the various stages of the CPM and SEC process, this does not result in the causal appraisal (A¹) ceasing to exist as the appraisal that takes on an emotional body (A2 ) comes into operation. To put this argument into a logical format, we can adopt the temporal parts argument:

A¹ is a temporal part of A2 during E if; and only if;

a. A1 is a part of A2 at (or during) E;

b. A1 overlaps everything that is a part of A2 at or during E; and

c. A1 exists only at or during E.

As each stage can be seen to be True throughout Scherer’s theory, it would conclude that appraisal causes something of which it is also a part of. In this light, Premise 3 can be visualised as: A1 -> A²+B. This solution aligns with Moor’s third strategy, where she reinterprets P3 and appoints the appraisal process as the cause of emotion (A) and the appraisal output as an emotional component (AB). Likewise, it would also align with Lazarus’ strategy, which invokes the analogy of microbes being the cause of disease and rejects the incompatibility of P4 and P5.

Overall, I have shown that Scherer’s CPM and SEC operate as a process constructed of multiple components that inform the causation and differentiation of emotions amongst individuals. I have considered the objection that appraisal does not cause emotions and have refuted, through the application of the temporal parts argument, that appraisal cannot be a causation and a part of emotional episodes. In summary, I conclude that while appraisal triggers emotions, it maintains a vital component throughout the process of formulating part of emotions.


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Laura E Fox

LLB (Hons) and BA (Gender Studies and Philosophy) student at the Australian National University. A collection of academic essays.