Secondary appraisal refers to the analysis of one’s available resources to overcome a potentially stressful situation. The analysis will either conclude that sufficient resources do, or do not exist.
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.
If a person’s secondary appraisal analysis concludes that sufficient resources exist, then the event will not be stressful. In fact, it could be seen as very positive.
A Simple Example
A mother and father expecting a child will feel excited and joy if they are financially stable and have a loving and caring relationship. Having an extended family circle willing to help in child-rearing will also be a valuable resource. However, if a person’s analysis concludes that insufficient resources exist, then the event will be stressful. For example, if expecting parents lack financial resources, are experiencing marital discord, and have an uninvolved extended family, then the event can become quite stressful.
Primary vs. Secondary Appraisal
The fundamental difference in primary and secondary appraisal is that one occurs during the initial encounter of an event, and the second occurs after that event has been defined.
Primary appraisal refers to the process of interpreting a life event as either a positive, negative, or irrelevant. There is a lot of variation among individuals in how an event can be interpreted.
For the exact same event, one person may see it as an opportunity to overcome adversity or demonstrate fortitude. Another person may interpret that same event as a potential threat that will likely lead to failure and embarrassment. While a third individual may see the whole matter as inconsequential.
As explained above, secondary appraisal involves an analysis of resources. It is an analysis that assesses the psychological, material, and financial requirements needed to overcoming the obstacle.
Origins of Secondary Appraisal
The term secondary appraisal is a component of the transactional model of stress and coping developed by Lazarus and Folkman (1984).
The model identifies each stage of a life event may or may not lead to a negative or positive outcome.
The first stage in the model has to do with whether a life event is perceived or not. Of course, events that are unknown or unrecognized will not create stress.
If the event is perceived, then it must be interpreted. This is the Primary Appraisal process described above. There are three possible interpretations: as a positive event that may lead to an opportunity to flourish, as a dangerous event that could lead to failure, or as an irrelevant event which carries no relevance to one’s life.
If the event is interpreted as dangerous, then Secondary Appraisal kicks-in and the analysis of available resources is engaged.
If sufficient resources exist, then there will be no further stress. However, insufficient resources will necessitate a coping strategy that is either problem-focused or emotion-focused.
Eventually, a Reappraisal process occurs to assess the effectiveness of those strategies.
That evaluation may result in adjusting the strategy, trying a completely new strategy, or even starting at the beginning of the model and reinterpreting the event all together.
Problem-Focused vs. Emotion-Focused Coping Strategies
If the result of the secondary appraisal is that the individual has insufficient resources to overcome the threat, then they must choose a coping strategy.
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) identify two coping strategies: emotion-focused and problem-focused.
Emotion-focused coping involves trying to manage stress through emotional regulation. The objective is to eliminate or at least significantly decrease the negative feelings caused by a psychosocial stressor.
Schoenmakers et al. (2015) state:
“Emotion-focused coping includes all the regulative efforts to diminish the emotional consequences of stressful events” (p. 154).
Reducing stress can be accomplished through relatively simple means such as taking a walk through the woods (Schweitzer, 2018), positive affect journalling (PAJ) (Smyth et al., 2018), or guided imagery (Nguyen & Brymer, 2018).
Problem-focused coping involves directly confronting the source of stress to eliminate or decrease its impact. This includes modifying personal habits, boosting self-esteem, or developing specific task-related skills.
Schoenmakers et al. (2015) defined problem-focused coping as:
“all the active efforts to manage stressful situations and alter a troubled person-environment relationship to modify or eliminate the sources of stress via individual behavior” (p. 154).
Secondary Appraisal Examples
- Social Support: Friends and family members can provide valuable social support in times of need. This can be both in the form of psychological support, helping with various tasks and situational demands, or, if need be, provide financial resources.
- Checking the Bank Account: Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can reduce stress. Financial resources can be used to acquire needed items, pay for medical services, or hire appropriate professionals.
- Assessing Physical Health: Some situations may require a person to be physically strong or have no medical ailments. In this case, the individual will evaluate if they have the physical capability to overcome the challenging event.
- Assessing Psychological Health: When facing a daunting task, having all the money and physical stamina in the world won’t help if a person just does not have the mental fortitude to endure the challenge.
- Equipment Needs: In a particular job situation, there may be a need for specialized equipment. That equipment may not be available or may be too expensive to purchase. In this case, the individual has to conclude that the necessary equipment resources are insufficient.
- Knowledge and Skills: To carry out some tasks, even if the needed equipment is available, the individual may not have the knowledge or skills to operate it effectively. In this case, the person may consider additional training or seeking the help of someone more qualified.
- Timing: In some circumstances, all of the necessary resources may be fully available and operable, but perhaps the timing is all wrong. The deadline may be just too tight to complete the project successfully. In this example, time is a resource.
- Self-Efficacy: An individual’s belief regarding their ability to overcome a particular obstacle will also factor in to secondary appraisal.
- Analysis of the Competition: If the situation is a competitive one, then an individual’s secondary appraisal will also comprise an assessment of the competition. If the individual is strong but the competition is weak, then the probability of success is high.
- Available Options: A full analysis in secondary appraisal will also involve an exploration of available options. If there are alternative strategies for coping with the event, then they will be considered.
Research Case Study: Cross-Cultural Coping and Loneliness
Feeling lonely is a common experience among older adults in many countries. For instance, in the U. S., approximately 30% of adults over 45 report feeling lonely (NASEM).
This is also a serious concern in the Netherlands. To examine loneliness coping strategies, Schoenmakers et al. (2015) conducted face-to-face interviews with over 1,000 adults 61 – 99 years old as part of the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam (LASA).
Each participant was presented with 4 vignettes that described a person that was feeling lonely. They were asked to indicate “yes” or “no” to six coping strategies, such as “Go to places or club meetings to meet people” (problem-focused), or “Keep in mind that other people are lonely as well, or even more lonely” (emotion-focused).
The results indicated that participants that were experiencing loneliness were less likely to endorse problem-based strategies and more likely to endorse emotion-based strategies than those who were not experiencing loneliness.
The researchers explain that “ongoing loneliness makes people abandon to look at options to improve relationships that are costly in time and energy. But because they still want to do something to alleviate their loneliness, they endorse lowering expectations” (p. 159).
Applications of Secondary Appraisal
1. Workplace Stress Caused by Insufficient Resources
As cited by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) of the United States Department of Labor, “More than 80% of US workers have reported experiencing workplace stress, and more than 50% believe their stress related to work impacts their life at home.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that (linked here) workplace stress has led to negative mental or behavior health effects in approximately 40% of the U. S. adult population, including symptoms related to anxiety and depression.
Somewhat surprisingly, a study by Goh et al., (2015) found that workplace stress is causally linked to 120,000 deaths each year. Additionally, the study found that workplace stress is estimated to cost the national health care system approximately $48 billion.
In regards to Secondary Appraisal, many workplace stressors are directly linked to the availability of resources to do one’s job.
Nielsen et al. (2017) conducted a meta-analysis of 84 studies and suggested that organizations address four main resource areas to improve employee well-being and performance:
The research above suggests that there are ways to help employees build resources to combat workplace stress. Therefore, when conducting a secondary appraisal, an employee can feel greater confidence to overcome challenges due to possessing more effective available resources.
2. Building Psychological Resources
Given the profound psychological and economic impact of workplace stress, many organizations have attempted to help employees develop psychological resources to improve coping efforts.
These initiatives are often in the form of stress management and employee well-being programs.
Programs generally fall into two categories, “red cape interventions” and “green cape interventions” (Polly, 2014).
Red cape interventions are designed to stop negative experiences by reducing job demands such as role overload.
Green cape interventions are more focused on improving job control, organizational support, and personal resources such as improving self-evaluations and enhancing social support networks (Tetrick & Winslow, 2015).
In a comprehensive review of stress management interventions and wellness programs in organizations, Tetrick and Winslow (2015) conclude that most efforts are focused on reducing stress through techniques such as mindfulness training.
However, there has been growing interest in positive psychology, which aims to build psychological stamina to fend off stress. This orientation includes “expressing gratitude, savoring experiences, and identifying and using one’s personal strengths” (p. 597).
Seligman et al. (2005) found that elements of positive psychology can result in long-term improvements in indicators of well-being such as increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms.
Secondary appraisal involves the individual taking stock in what resources are available to meet a challenging situation.
Resources are both psychological and material-based. Psychological resources can include having the knowledge and skills to perform the necessary tasks to resolve a problem, feelings of self-efficacy, social support, and the fortitude to endure.
Material resources can include having access to necessary equipment or the financial means to acquire needed items and services.
Unfortunately, workplace stress takes a severe toll on employee physical and mental health, and represents a huge financial burden on the national healthcare system.
On the other side of the coin however, research has demonstrated that organizations can implement programs that are effective in helping employees build sufficient resources to manage and overcome work-related stress.
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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).