Magda B. Arnold's Appraisal Theory of Emotions

Magda B. Arnold was an important voice in the field of psychology. He appraisal theory of emotions helps explain how emotions work on a cognitive and physiological level.
Magda B. Arnold's Appraisal Theory of Emotions

Last update: 29 May, 2019

Psychologist and philosopher William James (1842 – 1910) believed that emotions are actually the subjective experience of physiological changes (especially those related to the sympathetic nervous system) that happen when you experience a stimulus or find yourself in a particular situation. Therefore, emotions wouldn’t be possible without these changes or the perception of these changes. However, Magda B. Arnold (1903-2002) had a different perspective on this idea. She came up with what she called the appraisal theory of emotions.

Arnold’s appraisal theory suggested that emotions don’t result from physiological changes, but that people need to make an appraisal about whether or not an object or situation affects them in one way or another. This evaluation produces a feeling of attraction or aversion, which causes you to either get closer to or distance yourself from the object or situation. Thus, the sequence is the following: perception, evaluation, emotion.

According to Magda B. Arnold’s appraisal theory of emotions, emotions depend on how we appraise objects and situations.

Four Aspects of Emotional Appraisal

Arnold laid out four fundamental aspects of emotional appraisal, which are still relevant today:

  • Difference between perception and evaluation.
  • The immediacy of emotional evaluation.
  • The tendency to action.
  • Certainty.
Magda B. Arnold and emotional appraisal.

1. The Difference between Perception and Appraisal

Perceiving an object means knowing what the object is like. Evaluating an object means considering it in relation to yourself. During that process, you tend to classify it into one of two categories: pleasant or unpleasant.

For example, if you find a lion roaring in the middle of the street, you’ll appraise it as something unpleasant and it’ll cause fear. If you see the same lion in a zoo, where it doesn’t pose any danger to you, you might assess the experience as pleasant.

2. The Immediacy of Emotional Evaluation

Emotional appraisal involves not only something that you’re attracted to or averse, but also passing judgment on the situation or object. These assessments are immediate, automatic, direct, and non-reflexive.

If you see a lion in the middle of the street, you’ll certainly run away. This survival reaction is triggered by fear, which is an immediate, direct, and automatic emotion. In other words, you act without thinking twice. You don’t stop to think about the consequences of seeing a lion in front of you in the street because that would be a waste of time.

At the same time, because these are non-reflexive assessments, they involve a response that’s equal or similar to the one before. Let’s take a look at another example. What happens when you pass an important test or see a loved one again after a long time? You might cry from happiness. You do this without any kind of intellectual or reflective processing, which means that you don’t stop what you’re doing to think about the situation. It happens in a completely spontaneous way.

3. Action Tendencies

When you assess an object or situation as pleasant or unpleasant, you start an action tendency that you feel like an emotion that’s associated with physiological changes and can lead to concrete action. In other words, you feel physiological changes that trigger action. When you’re angry, not only do you feel hot and you start breathing faster, but you also might feel like slamming doors and throwing things.

These two variables trigger two behaviors. When you appraise something as pleasant, you tend to get closer to it both physically or emotionally. On the other hand, if you decide something is unpleasant, you’ll reject it and distance yourself from it. Thus, your emotional appraisal will determine your behavior towards something that you’ve evaluated.

With her appraisal theory, Magda B. Arnold posited that when physiological states are activated and don’t follow an action, you can end up feeling very uncomfortable and frustrated. The author argued that you act first and then you think about the object you’ve perceived that has triggered the action.

A woman running through the forest.

4. Certainty

Human beings tend to think that everything will stay the same. In general, when you meet someone, you believe that they’ll always behave in the same way. Or you think that your loved ones will always be around.

We tend to assign certainty to everything around us and don’t think about the possibility of change. Life, of course, isn’t certain. Things change constantly. Arnold highlighted the contrast between our expectations and what actually happens.

The belief that everything will stay the same leads to suffering. People also think that others will continue to behave the way they always have, which is obviously a fallacy. Magda B. Arnold emphasized the importance of understanding the concept of certainty so that the changes that happen in your life don’t cause so much distress.

Magda B. Arnold was an influential figure in psychology. Her work helped Richard Lazarus develop one of the most extensive theories on cognitive assessment, stress, and emotion. Thus, Magda B. Arnold contributed important ideas to this ever-evolving discipline.

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