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Recently, yet another woman came forward accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault, or more specifically, "forcefully" kissing her. In the interview, the woman was clearly emotionally disturbed recounting this event... that happened almost 50 years ago. What is it about an unwelcome forceful kiss that can cause so much emotional damage to a person over the course of a half century? As we will see, it is not the kiss but what is referred to in psychology as the appraisal of the event or situation. In simple terms, appraisal theory is the claim that emotions are the result of a person's subjective evaluation or significance of a situation (Scherer, Schorr, and Johnstone, 2001). This theory helps explain why people who experience similar or even the same event or experiences, have very different emotional responses to the event or experience. It helps explain why some people experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), slip into depression after a negative life event, or in more mild and common situations, allow their happiness to be hijacked by negative emotions. We do have a level of control over our appraisals, and understanding this concept and theory can have very positive effects on one's emotional well-being.
Let's look at an uncomfortable, but important example—rape. The physical act of something as horrible as rape can appear identical, at times, to the physical act of sex between two consenting adults. The difference is what is going on in the minds of the participants (the subjective experience). By no means is this subjective experience unimportant or of lesser value than the physical reality of the situation. Our experience of our world is ultimately subjective. However, even if there is no physical harm, the experience of rape can destroy a person's entire life whereas consensual sex might brighten someone's day. This idea might suggest a "blame the victim" mentality, but not so fast. The level of control we have over our appraisals is limited, and varies from person to person based on biological factors such as genetic, hormonal, and chemical, and environmental factors such as how one was raised, philosophical views, and social interactions.
Researchers on appraisal theory are well aware of the limitations of the theory, which recognize the physiological, unconscious, and automatic emotional responses outside of one's control. For example, if you sit on a cactus, you don't "appraise" anything—you get your ass off that cactus immediately and feel the pain. If you get on stage to give a speech and realize that you forgot to put your pants on, you feel a powerful surge of blood rush to your head (embarrassment). Where appraisal comes in, is in the time that follows the reaction. It is the rational, cognitive process that includes an inner dialog of the event. Dispositional traits (i.e., those that don't change much over a person's lifetime), have a strong influence on the narratives we create of the event. For example, someone with narcissistic tendencies might wallow in pity after a death of a close loved one asking "why did this happen to me?" Attempts to appraise an event in such a way that is not congruous with one's dispositional traits might be challenging, but not impossible.
Depending on one's culture, a certain level of emotional distress as a response to a negative life event is not only acceptable, but encouraged. In many cases, the lack of an expected emotional response is seen as a sign of callousness or insensitivity. We must recognize that these norms are cultural and social norms rather than personal norms based on the biological and environmental factors mentioned earlier. When one's personal norm doesn't fall in line with the cultural and social norm, the behavior is labeled as "pathological" (greater than the norm) or "insensitive" (less than the norm). When we experience very little emotional distress compared to the norm, we can still be supportive and empathetic. When our response is deemed pathological, it is by definition causing us more distress than the norm and something we should want to address. However, many people embrace prolonged distress because of increased attention and sympathy from others or out of a sense of guilt. For example, one might "reason" that the amount of suffering they endure should be proportional to how much they loved the one they lost, and this could be admired by others as a sign of love, rather than a contrived way of permitting, and in some cases celebrating, the turning of an unfortunate loss of one life into two.
Although we may not always succeed, we can certainly do our best to take control of our appraisals. Here are a few tips for achieving increased well-being through appraisals.
Focus on your emotions. How do you feel? Why do you think you feel this way? Are these emotions authentic or is there an element of artificiality in them? Do you feel as if you deserve to suffer? Do you secretly like the attention you are getting from your suffering? It may be that you cannot rationalize your emotions, which is an indication that the emotions are authentic in the sense that they are more automatic and unconscious than contrived based on a poorly constructed appraisal.
Realize that it is okay not to be negatively affected by a traumatic event. Terrible things happen every day. The collective view of society on the "acceptable" emotional impact of an event is not and does not have to be the same as the emotional impact the event should have on you. This does not make you insensitive or even low on empathy; it could simply mean that you are more resilient and better at handling negative situations. Just realize that your enhanced ability does not mean that others are "too sensitive," and demonstrate sensitivity.
Realize that events don't control your well-being; your interpretation (or appraisal) of them does. Author and psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote a book called Man's Search for Meaning where he recounted his time as a prisoner in a Nazi camp. He tells how he used that experience to make him stronger and increase his well-being through a greater appreciation of life. If Viktor can appraise three years of being a prisoner in a concentration camp positively, you can probably do the same about the time some stranger brushed up against your butt on the subway—no need for weekly therapy or Prozac.
Things will happen to us in life and whether these are good things, bad things, or unfortunate but inevitable things that lead to what's called post-traumatic growth, depends largely on how we purposely and consciously evaluate (or appraise) the event. Some of us will be more successful at this than others due to a combination of our biology and environment, but none of us will know how successful we can be at this until we do our best to appraise events in our life in ways that result in increased well-being.
Scherer, K. R., Schorr, A. E., & Johnstone, T. E. (2001). Appraisal processes in emotion: Theory, methods, research. Oxford University Press.