Cognitive Appraisal - Part One

The right level of pressure is essential for optimal cognitive and physical performance. Excessive pressure however compromises our ability to make decisions, communicate and complete complex physical tasks. In order to perform well under pressure, we need the tools and techniques to own the pressure. If we can own the pressure, we can own the performance. 

When faced with a high-pressure situation, our initial emotional response can make our performance, or it can break it. Our perception of the pressures facing us has a considerable influence over our ability to perform. How we perceive the magnitude of the situation, the risks involved and our personal ability to overcome them is known as cognitive appraisal.


A key part of owning the pressure for high performance is understanding how we initially perceive high-pressure situations and how we can manage our resultant emotional response. 


Emotional and rational appraisal


When faced with a high-pressure situation it would be ideal if our brains paused to consider all of the information available and then made a rational, objective judgement of what was going on and our ability to deal with it. However, it takes time for the rational processing parts of our brain to assess the situation around us, the magnitude of the challenge and the potential risks involved. Before this objective situational assessment occurs, the emotional part of our brain tends to react almost instantaneously. This rapid situational judgement is a protective mechanism based on comparing the situation facing us with ones we’ve previously experienced.With limited time for assessment, our initial analysis is based more on an instinctive emotional response rather than a considered, logical assessment.


The appraisal questions

When our brains are initially appraising a situation, we subconsciously ask ourselves three questions:

1.   What will success or failure mean for me? 

2.   How big is this problem?

3.   Do I have the resources to achieve a successful outcome?

The cognitive appraisal process is almost instantaneous, and we have no conscious ability to control it. 


When we are considering the potential outcomes of a pressured situation, we might decide that failure will result in harm to us. This could be reputational, financial or even physical harm. Alternatively, we might conclude that a successful outcome could be beneficial to our wellbeing.


Next, we subconsciously compare it to our previous experiences. How large is this problem in terms of time and resources required to deal with it successfully? How technically complex is this problem?


Once we have assessed the magnitude of the situation and the potential effects of success or failure, we need to consider whether we have the ability and the resources to deal what is facing us. 



Challenge or threat


There are two potential outcomes to the cognitive appraisal process. We can perceive the problem to be a surmountable challenge or an impossible to overcome threat to our wellbeing. 

Appraising the situation as a difficult but achievable challenge helps to motivate us and improves our performance. We appraise the problem to be large and difficult, but we believe that we have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to achieve a favourable outcome.

We can however make a judgement that the situation is overwhelming, exceeding our personal abilities and the resources available to us i.e. a cognitive appraisal of threat. 

Appraisals of threat generate a protective hormonal stress response and consequently, a state of “fight or flight”. This response results in a surge in the release of stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. Our bodies physically react to these stress hormones by preparing ourselves for physical conflict or to rapidly extricate ourselves. This state is not conducive to handling complex decision making, effective communication or carrying out fine motor tasks. 


Exaggerated cognitive appraisals of threat 


An appraisal of threat can be rational, objective and accurate. The problem may truly be too large or too complicated for us, and our team, to successfully deal with using the resources available to us. 

However, the rapid, initial cognitive appraisal process, based on pattern recognition, is prone to error if the current situation is in fact different from those we have previously encountered. Fearing potential harm, our emotional brain can exaggerate how difficult the situation is and wrongly perceive it to be a threat.

Exaggerated and falsely negative cognitive appraisals resulting from our initial emotional appraisal lead to avoidable compromises in our performance. Recognition of this, and an ability to manage our initial emotional response, are important for maintaining effective, rational mental processing. 


We can’t change our initial cognitive appraisal of a high-pressure situation but we can use techniques to manage how we respond to it. These will be discussed in part two.




1.   Harvey A. et al. Threat and challenge: cognitive appraisal and stress responses in simulated trauma resuscitations. Medical education 2010; 44: 587-594


2.   Tomaka J. et al. Subjective, physiological, and behavioural effects of threat and challenge appraisal.  Journal of personality and social psychology. 1993; 65: 248-260.


3.   Folkman S. Dynamics of stressful encounter: cognitive appraisal, coping and encounter outcomes. J. of personality and social psychology. 1986; 50 (5):992-1003




Stephen Hearns