Cognitive reappraisal refers to when an individual changes their interpretation of a situation.
The process involves implementing different strategies to reframe or reinterpret the meaning of a situation in order to exert better control over one’s emotional response.
Here, we can see that cognitive reappraisal is an integral strategy to achieve emotional regulation. It involves changing how a person perceives the meaning or self-relevance of a situation in order to alter its emotional impact (Gross, 2015).
Cognitive Reappraisal in Psychology: Overview
When encountering any given situation, an individual engages in a process of interpreting that event. That analysis determines if the event is positive or negative, which then leads to an emotional reaction based on that interpretation.
Events which are interpreted negatively will lead to negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, or anger.
If an event is interpreted as being positive, then the subsequent emotional reaction can include feelings of joy, excitement, or other positive emotions.
Individuals vary in regards to their interpretation tendencies. One event can be interpreted quite differently by any two people. For example, if a supervisor assigns a difficult project to a team of employees, it can be interpreted differently by each person on the team.
While one person may see the project as intimidating and fear the possibility of failing, another may see it as an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and impress the boss.
Cognitive reappraisal is most commonly used to decrease negative emotions. However, it can also be used to increase or decrease either negative or positive emotions (Ochsner & Gross, 2005).
Mauss et al. (2007) found individual differences in people’s tendency to engage in cognitive reappraisal. In their study, high and low reappraisers were made angry.
The researchers then assessed the participants’ emotional and cardiovascular reactions. Compared to low reappraisers, high reappraisers reported less anger, less negative emotion, and a more adaptive cardiovascular response.
Significance of Cognitive Reappraisal
There are negative consequences of maladaptive appraisal (i.e. if you have the wrong appraisal of an event). So, cognitive reappraisal helps to avoid these negative consequences.
For example, if an individual consistently interprets events negatively, it can have an impact on their psychological and physical well-being.
This is especially true of people living in industrialized nations. Because modern life (in industrialized nations) can involve a large number of stressful events per day, usually in the form of work demands and interpersonal friction, the ability to regulate one’s emotional reactions is crucial.
Every year since 2007 the American Psychological Association conducts the Stress in America™ survey.
The results reveal that a majority of Americans experience anxiety regarding concerns about the government, civil liberties, economic conditions, crime and violence, and the nation’s future.
In addition, according to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress is directly related to physical ailments such as heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, obesity, and stroke.
A substantial amount of research has demonstrated a strong connection between stressful life events, ranging from major catastrophes (e.g., earthquakes) to high-pressure job demands, and heart disease such as myocardial infarction (MI) and atherosclerosis (e.g., hardening of the arteries).
For example, Möller et al. (2005) examined stressful occupations and the incidence of MI, stating that:
“…life events experienced in working life, and characterised by high demands, competition, or conflict, are potential triggers of the onset of myocardial infarction” (p. 27).
Thoits (2010) conducted an extensive literature review and concluded that 50 years of research has demonstrated that stressful life events have a substantial negative impact on physical and mental health.
These effects can be especially damaging to minority group members that experience additional harm due to discrimination, which proliferates over the lifespan and across generations.
Thoits also calls attention to research devoted to identifying factors that can mitigate the damaging effects of stress:
“Three have emerged in sociological work as particularly efficacious stress-buffers: a sense of control or mastery over life, high self-esteem, and social support” (p. S46).
Of those three, developing a sense of control of mastery over life is one form of cognitive reappraisal. Instead of an event being interpreted as potentially devastating, it is much more adaptive for an individual to perceive events from the perspective of being able to overcome the challenge.
Cognitive Reappraisal Examples
- Seeing the Silver Lining: Losing a job means having an opportunity to finish various side projects that a person has wanted to complete for years. Now they have plenty of time.
- When Good Comes from Bad: A family in Europe misses the train to their next destination. Instead of feeling frustrated and upset, they take the opportunity to browse the shops at the station and pick-up a few snacks for their trip. Snacks on the train are always overpriced.
- Detaching the Self: Not attaching your worth as a human being to everything you do is called detachment. It means accepting events, but not tying your value to them. This way, when something negative happens, it doesn’t contain severe ramifications for your self-esteem.
- Be Like Bamboo: Bamboo is incredibly strong, but, it is also flexible. Steel is also strong, but, it doesn’t bend. In life, it is better to be like bamboo than steel. So, when negative life events happen, sometimes it is better to adapt than resist.
- When One Door Closes, Another Opens: Instead of being hired for a job that you did not like so much, it is really an opportunity to keep looking and find a position more appealing in the long-run.
- Incorporating Criticism: After receiving the editor’s numerous criticisms of a manuscript, the author takes a deep breath and begins to adjust their work based on each comment, one at a time, slow and steady.
- Like a Boat with No Oars: In Buddhism, life is viewed as a vast ocean. As the waves take us on our unique journey, we should not try to fight it. Instead, think of yourself as a boat with no oars, willing to allow life to take you to your destiny.
- Putting Things in Perspective: After experiencing a setback, sometimes it can be helpful to put it perspective by taking a step back. On a scale of 0-10, ten being the absolute worst news a person could have, how bad, really, is that setback?
- Three Innings out of Nine: When faced with a long journey that will involve numerous ups and downs, seeing the current state as just one more step towards the endgame will help keep things in perspective, whether they are good or bad. This will keep one’s emotional reactions more even-keeled.
- Finding Examples of Success: Sometimes when facing a severe challenge, instead of dreading potential failure, it can be better to find an example of someone in a similar situation that succeeded. Using their experience as inspiration can be motivating.
Applications of Cognitive Reappraisal
1. Transactional Model of Stress and Coping
The Transactional Model of Stress and Coping was originally proposed by Lazarus and Folkman in 1984, and subsequently modified (Folkman, 2007).
The model identifies the basic steps involved in how individuals respond to stressful life events.
If the event is perceived, then a Primary Appraisal process is engaged.
The individual’s interpretation of that event determines if it is perceived as either a threat, an opportunity, or irrelevant.
This is where cognitive reappraisal can occur and alter the perception of the event from being a threat, to being an opportunity.
If the stressor is interpreted as a threat, then Secondary Appraisal will involve an assessment of how to overcome the event.
If the individual does not have sufficient resources to overcome the threat, then either a problem-focused or emotion-focused coping strategy will be engaged.
The final step involves a Reappraisal to determine if the coping strategy was effective or not.
If ineffective, another strategy will be implemented or a sense of helplessness may ensue.
The Lazarus and Folkman model has been researched in a variety of contexts. Rovira et al. (2005) conducted a longitudinal study involving university students and found that dispositional variables such as perceived competence and optimism were related to affective responses to exams.
Scheier et al. (2001) published an extensive review of longitudinal studies and found support for the role of dispositional variables affecting appraisal of life events. Their analysis indicated that highly optimistic individuals displayed better adjustment to a wide variety of stressful situations.
Laubmeier et al. (2004) found that spirituality in cancer patients was linked to experiencing less distress and a better quality of life, regardless of perceived threat.
This suggests that individuals that have a high degree of spirituality may not engage in cognitive reappraisal, but still experience positive outcomes in response to stressful events.
Other researchers have investigated the utility of the Lazarus and Folkman model to mothers of autistic children (Seymour et al., 2013), coping strategies of nurses (Evans & Kelly, 2004), and the teaching profession (McCarthy, et al., 2009).
2. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
The core elements of cognitive reappraisal have been utilized in a variety of psychological therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT; Beck 2005).
CBT is a therapeutic approach which teaches patients how to interpret life events in a way that is more adaptive and constructive. CBT has been found to be an effective treatment for a variety of mood and anxiety disorders, especially depression.
Depressed individuals often display dysfunctional beliefs such as “If I can’t succeed at what’s important, I’m a failure.” This perception can activate what is referred to as the negative cognitive triad regarding the self, the personal world, and future.
Beck (2005) reports that a 1985 review of 220 studies found that 91% of the studies supported the CBT model of depression. More recently, DeRubeis et al. (2005) found that cognitive therapy and anti-depressant medication showed equivalent efficacy, but cognitive therapy showed better results in preventing relapse.
Cognitive reappraisal is also utilized in other talk therapies such as dialectical behavioral therapy (Lynch et al., 2007), and psychodynamic therapy (Bateman & Fonagy, 2006).
3. In Treatment of Medical Conditions
Beck (2005) reports that there have also been numerous carefully designed studies examining the effectiveness of medical treatment plus cognitive interventions on a variety of medical conditions.
Those medical conditions include heart disease (Chevalier et al., 2006), hypertension (Shapiro et al., 2013), cancer (Moorey et al., 1998), and chronic pain (Morley et al., 1999). The addition of CBT can help reduce some symptom types and improve psychological well-being.
Cognitive reappraisal involves reinterpreting a life event in a manner that is more constructive and adaptive. Although life events may seem fairly straightforward, there are differences in the way they can be perceived.
When labeled as a negative, it can lead to maladaptive behaviors that inhibit overcoming the challenge. When seen in a positive frame, it can lead to adaptive behaviors and emotional reactions that foster overcoming the challenge.
Unfortunately, modern life has many stressful events compressed in a short period of time. When consistently interpreted negatively, it can lead to individuals experiencing chronic stress, which has been linked to a decline in psychological and physical health.
Fortunately, several therapeutic techniques, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, have proven effective in treating psychological disorders such as depression and medical conditions such as heart disease.
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Appendix: Image Description
The image with alt text “graphical representation of the transactional model of stress” depicts a flow chart starting with “life event”. The next step is “perceptual process (event perceived/not perceived)”. If an event is perceived, we move on to the “primary appraisal (interpretation of perceived event)” step. Three options are presented: positive event, dangerous event, and irrelevant event. If it is perceived as a dangerous event, we move onto “secondary appraisal (analysis of available resources)”. Two options are presented: insufficient resources and sufficient resources. If insufficient resources are identified, we move onto the “stress coping strategy” step. The two options are problem-fcused and emotion-focused. The final step is reappraisal, where we apprause is the stragey was successful or failed. This flow chart is based on Lazarus and Folkman (1984).