Primary appraisal is the immediate process of interpreting the meaning of an event or situation. The interpretation will lead to one of three conclusions. Either the event is interpreted as a threat, an opportunity, or as irrelevant.
The term primary appraisal is used in stress research to help explain how individuals make decisions regarding how to cope with various situations.
It is a term contrasted to primary appraisal, referring to the evaluation of the harm or benefit to be gained from a situation:
- Primary appraisal: analysis of harmfulness, benefit, or irrelevance of a potential threat.
- Secondary appraisal: analysis of available resources, and whether they will assist you in overcoming a threat.
Any single event can be interpreted in a variety of ways by different individuals. For example, one person might view being asked to write a detailed report as a daunting task that could lead to failure and embarrassment.
However, another individual might view the task as an opportunity to demonstrate one’s abilities, impress the boss, and lead to a promotion at some point down the road.
This highlights the fact that it is not the event itself which creates stress, but rather it is the individual’s interpretation of the event which determines its meaning.
Primary vs. Secondary Appraisal
The difference in primary and secondary appraisal is that one is an interpretation of an event and the other is an analysis of what can be done to successfully endure that event if it has been interpreted negatively.
During the primary appraisal process the person asks themselves the fundamental question: What are the implications of this event for me personally?
That analysis will result in identifying the situation as either a threat, an opportunity, or nonconsequential.
If perceived as a threat, then a secondary appraisal occurs and addresses the fundamental question: Do I have sufficient resources to cope with this threat?
The outcome of the secondary appraisal can depend on the person’s personality profile. A person with a high degree of self-efficacy may think that they have sufficient resources to overcome the event. They may feel confident that their knowledge, skills, and fortitude will result in a successful outcome.
Another person however, may determine that they have insufficient resources at hand and therefore need to implement a coping strategy.
Origins of Primary Appraisal
The concept of primary appraisal was originally proposed by psychologist Richard Lazarus in the book Psychological Stress and Coping Process.
Lazarus and his colleague Susan Folkman later developed the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
The model describes each stage of a process that identifies how events may or may not lead to a negative or positive outcome, depending on what transpires at each stage of the model.
The first stage in the model is the occurrence of a life event. That event may or may not be perceived. If perceived, then the event must be interpreted. That interpretation occurs during Primary Appraisal. As stated above, there are three possible interpretations of the event: as a positive, as dangerous, or as irrelevant.
If the event is interpreted as dangerous, then Secondary Appraisal occurs in which the individual assesses the availability of resources.
If sufficient resources are available to overcome the event, then all is well and no stress is experienced.
If resources are insufficient, then a coping strategy is activated, which will either be problem-focused or emotion-focused.
That coping strategy will either be effective or not, which is based on a Reappraisal of the situation.
That reappraisal can result in the change of coping strategy or even an alternative interpretation of the initial event.
Primary Appraisal Examples
- Receiving a Promotion: Although a promotion is usually considered a reward, it can also bring increased responsibility and pressure. It all depends on how a person views the situation.
- An Upcoming Tough Game: Every member of a team will be facing the same tough opponent, but each one may have a completely different outlook. Some may see the game as an opportunity to prove how good they are, while others may dread the prospect of failure.
- Unpleasant Comment from a Colleague: Being on the receiving end of an unpleasant remark from a colleague may have no impact at all. A person can choose to just ignore the remark and let it pass in one ear and out the other.
- Checking for “Likes” on Social Media: When a person checks their post for “likes,” they may discover that almost no one seems to be paying attention. That can really dampen a person’s day and cause them to ruminate about why for hours and hours.
- Refusing to Read the Critic’s Review: The author of a new novel may refuse to read the review from a famed critic. They label the critic’s opinion as irrelevant and choose to not even read it.
- Geo-Politics: When one person watches the news about geopolitical tensions, they may start to seriously fear WW3. Another person however, watching the same news, has a muted reaction because they don’t think any of it impacts their daily life.
- Winning the Lottery: A recent winner of the lottery was initially overcome with joy. Then it dawned on them that with so much money comes a lot of responsibility. There are a lot of people in need around the world, so the winner starts to feel guilt and angst about what to do.
- Placed in Quarantine: On one hand, being placed in quarantine means not going outside, enjoying the great outdoors, or shopping. On the other hand, it means having a lot of free time to work on projects that have been put aside for far too long.
- Passed Over for Promotion: Being denied a promotion for several years in a row can cause someone to take a step back and analyze the situation. That analysis may lead the person to going back to school to get an advanced degree that is more pertinent to the position they seek. This is the result of seeing the negative event as an opportunity for growth.
- Termination of a Relationship: Breaking up is hard to do. What happens next can vary greatly depending on one’s perspective (i.e., primary appraisal). One person may see it as a major setback and commentary on their numerous character flaws. Another person however, may see it as a relief and opportunity to find someone better.
Applications of Primary Appraisal
1. The Role of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a state of mind that focuses on the present moment, without evaluation and judgment. Instead of viewing events as positive or negative, ascribing to mindfulness means just seeing each event as an occurrence.
Mindfulness training teaches an individual to not dwell on the negative or catastrophize an event, which can be precursors to anxiety and depression (Beck, 1995).
Adapting a mindful perspective as a form of primary appraisal can lead to many positive outcomes. For instance, some research (Shapiro, 2020) has linked mindfulness to a happier and more productive life.
It can reduce an individual’s tendency to dwell on the negative and foster the development of more positive experiences (Lomas et al., 2014).
In a meta-analysis of 29 studies, Khoury et al. (2015) found that mindfulness training had “large effects on stress, moderate effects on anxiety, depression, distress, and quality of life, and small effects on burnout” (p. 519).
These results suggest that a primary appraisal process that incorporates mindfulness can improve psychological well-being.
2. In Workplace Stress
Researchers that study occupational health have integrated the transactional model of stress and coping to help explain the relationship between workplace stress and psychosomatic distress (Kinicki, et al. 1996).
Cognitive appraisals play a significant role in mental health when experiencing unemployment (McKee-Ryan et al., 2005), employee perceptions of organizational change (Rafferty & Griffin, 2006), and the impact of psychosocial stressors on female employees (Portello & Long, 2001).
Furthermore, primary appraisal can be especially important in high-stress occupations such as nursing.
Fernandez De Henestrosa et al. (2023) found that “threat appraisal of time pressure, emotional and physical demands statistically significantly predict nurses’ negative affective states during the pandemic…In contrast, challenge appraisal of emotional and physical demands statistically significantly predicted nurses’ positive affect, promoting nurses’ feelings of excitement and enthusiasm” (p. 3850).
Primary appraisal is a crucial step in determining the outcome of a stressful event.
Although 10 individuals may be confronted with the exact same event, each one of those individuals may have completely different interpretations.
Some may see the event as a challenge to be met, others may see the it as a threat which can lead to failure, while others may perceive the whole matter as completely inconsequential.
Primary appraisal can be affected by taking a philosophical perspective such as mindfulness, which can facilitate a less negative analysis of events and inhibit catastrophizing.
The transactional model of stress and coping has particularly strong application in workplace stress. Research has shown that primary appraisal plays a role in dealing with unemployment, organizational change, and high-stress occupations such as nursing.
Beck, J. S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York: Guilford Press.
Fernandez De Henestrosa, M., Sischka, P. E., & Steffgen, G. (2023). Challenge, threat, coping potential: How primary and secondary appraisals of job demands predict nurses’ affective states during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Nursing Open.
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Portello, J. Y., & Long, B. C. (2001). Appraisals and coping with workplace interpersonal stress: A model for women managers. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48(2), 144.
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Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. London: Aster.
Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world. Rodale.
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).