Toward Delivering on the Promise
of Appraisal Theory
CRAIG A. SMITH AND LESLIE D. KIRBY
Appraisal theory promises a lot to the student of emotion. Although nominally a theory of the cognitive antecedents of emotion, the theory aspires to much more. In addition to describing the specific cognitions that elicit various emotions (e.g., Roseman, 1984; Scherer, 1984c; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985; Smith & Lazarus, 1990), appraisal theory promises to reveal much about broader issues in emotion psychology, such as: the kinds of situations and contexts likely to give rise to specific emotions for a particular individual (e.g., Smith & Pope, 1992) and the organization of physiological activity (both facial and autonomic) in emotion (e.g., Kirby, 1999b; Lazarus, 1968b; Scherer, 1986a, 1992c; C. A. Smith, 1989; Smith & Scott, 1997), as well as the motivational functions served by emotion (e.g., Frijda, 1987; Roseman, Wiest, & Swartz, 1994) and the role of emotion in coping and adaptation (e.g., Lazarus, 1968b, 1991b; Smith & Wallston, 1992).
The basis for these promises lies in at least two closely related assumptions. First, most contemporary emotions theorists view emotion as a coherent, organized system that largely serves adaptive functions (e.g., Ekman, 1984; Ellsworth, 1991; Frijda, 1986; Izard, 1977; Lazarus, 1991b; Plutchik, 1980a; Roseman, 1984; Scherer, 1984c; Smith & Lazarus, 1990; Tomkins, 1980). Thus there is assumed to be a rhyme and a reason to emotion. Specifically, emotions are posited to be evoked under conditions having adaptational significance to the individual and to physically prepare and motivate the individual to contend with the adaptational implications of the eliciting situation (e.g., Smith & Lazarus, 1990). As discussed in Schorr (a, this volume), appraisal has been proposed as the mechanism that links emotional reactions to the adaptational implications of one's circumstances. On this view, appraisal is an evaluative process that serves to “diagnose” whether the situation confronting an individual has adaptational relevance and, if it does, to identify the nature of that relevance and produce an appropriate emotional response to it (Lazarus, 1968b, 1991b; Roseman, 1984; Scherer, 1984c; Smith & Lazarus, 1990). Thus the second critical assumption is that appraisal, serving as the elicitor of emotions, plays a central role in the generation and differentiation of emotion.
Consideration of these assumptions makes the promise of appraisal theory clear.