I’ve been thinking about the idea of “appraisal” lately, especially in relation to the appraisal theory of emotion, which says the specific emotional experience depends on how something is “appraised”. In two separate studies, subjects responded emotionally to the computerized agents they were interacting with, even though they were well aware these entities weren’t “real”. In one study, subjects were playing a game with their computerized opponent, who ends the game saying (in effect) “I no longer want to play with you”. Most subjects reported their feelings were hurt even though they knew that was ridiculous.

In the other study, subjects have a conversation with a digitized person. When the face of this “person” frowns, scowls and otherwise looks unfriendly, the subjects report not really liking him. When the face is friendly, laughs a lot, and mirrors the subjects’ facial expressions and head movements, the subjects report liking him.

So where is the appraisal in these emotional reactions?

Then recently I read a New Yorker article about an amnesiac whose hippocampus was completely destroyed. With her short-term memory gone, her temperament became easier to discern: cheerful, even joyful. So she has all these positive emotions – and they are often accompanied by some sort of appraisal (insofar as the emotion is expressed verbally and semantic content inevitably involves an evaluation and interpretation of the objects of her mirth). But how does appraisal work without a narrative context – without a remembered link to similar experiences? It would seem that appraisal without memory is a weakened version of appraisal. And how much of this "appraisal" is justpost hoc making sense of the feeling?

Does the concept of appraisal even add anything to the understanding of emotion? It seems to me that emotions are implicitly evaluative and interpretive, which is different from saying that appraisals lead to an emotion (even though re-appraising may defuse an emotion). For example, fear equals sense of threat, but it may be inaccurate to say a sense of threat leads to or causes fear. As for re-appraisal, if one can be convinced that something is not a threat, then one’s fear will subside. Then again, re-appraisal that is purely cognitive is much less likely to transform as emotion than re-appraisal that taps into another emotion. Then it’s more like one emotion moderating another emotion. Maybe appraisals are just supporting players in our personal dramas.