Key Study: Cognitive appraisals and the stress response (Lazarus, 1963)

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology, Health Psychology, Key Studies

In this study, participants watched a disturbing video of the genital mutilation of young Aboriginal boys. Their stress responses changed depending on the information they were given about the film (Note: this is not a photo of the study - it's from Kubrick's movie "A Clockwork Orange.").

The most influential cognitive explanation of stress is based on “cognitive appraisals” – how we assess the relevance and potential harm of a stressor. The following study is one of many that supports this explanation.

Stress is a complex phenomenon that involves biological, psychological and environmental factors. Richard Lazarus was a pre-eminent psychologist in the field of stress research. Along with Susan Folkman, they developed “the transactional model of stress and coping” to explain stress. The fundamental claim of this theory is that how we think about a potential stressor (our appraisals) will affect how stressful it actually is.

Read more: 

Let’s use your IB exams as an example. If you think these don’t really matter and they’re actually pretty easy, you’ll have less stress than someone who thinks they’re really difficult and will determine the outcome of the rest of their lives. This is an example of two people with the same stressor (the exams) who have appraised it in two different ways. Their different appraisals will result in highly different stress responses.

There are different types of appraisals one can make, including threat or challenge appraisals. A threat appraisal occurs when someone believes that the stressor is harmful. A challenge appraisal, on the other hand, is when someone believes the stressor will provide opportunities for growth and benefits. Threat appraisals result in higher stress responses than challenge appraisals.

Lazarus believed that the “…concept of cognitive appraisal implies that the same stimulus can be threatening or not, depending upon the interpretation the person makes concerning its future personal significance.” In other words, our appraisals of a stimulus affect how much stress it causes.

Empirical evidence for a cognitive appraisal explanation for stress comes from the following study…

Cognitive Appraisals and the Stress Response (Lazarus, 1963)

The aim of this experiment was to see how cognitive appraisals affect the physiological stress response.

File:Operation of Subincision, Warrumanga Tribe, Central Australia Wellcome M0005682.jpg

From Wikipedia: “Operation of Subincision, Warrumanga Tribe, Central Australia.”


  • Participants watched a 17 minute video of an Australian aboriginal ritual involving the genital mutilation of young boys using stone-aged tools. The end of the boys’ penises are cut open in an operation called a “subincision.” (Read more in this article). It’s a highly disturbing video to watch and generates a physiological stress response.
  • The participants’ emotional states and stress responses were measured by taking their pulse, breathing rate and skin conductance (when you’re stressed your skin becomes a better conductor of electricity so this can be a measure of your stress response).
  • To test the effects of cognitive appraisal on the stress response, Lazarus manipulated how the participants would appraise the content of the video. There was a control condition, which had no voice-over narration, just the video footage of the castration ritual. There were also three other conditions:
    • Intellectualization: a narrator’s voice-over was added whereby the narrator sounded like an anthropologist who was viewing the films as an analytical, neutral observer, without reference to any feelings or emotions. They were simply “observing an interesting specimen of human behaviour and describing it analytically.”
    • Denial: the narrator begins by denying that the procedures were damaging or affected their health and that the boys “had looked forward all their lives to this happy experience, which permitted them to join their brothers as emerging adults and full members of the society.”
    • Trauma: the narrator tried to emphasize all the possible elements of threat in the film, including “ the filth, the pain, the danger of the operation, and the sadism of the procedure,” although their tone of voice was flat, neutral and emotionless like the other conditions.


The results of the skin conductance measures showed that the stress response of participants in the silent, denial and intellectualization groups was quite similar. However, the trauma condition had a much higher stress response.

The video is the same for all participants, but what changes is the film’s narration. This affects how the participants were thinking about the video they watched. In other words, their cognitive appraisals changed their stress response. Perceiving the video as “threatening” increased stress. (From Lazarus, 1963).

Conclusions and Applications:

  • Cognitive appraising something as “threatening” will result in an increased stress response, compared to an appraisal of harmless or challenging.
  • IB Exam Applications: This study can be useful for the following topics:
    • Cognitive explanations of one health problem (stress)
    • Research methods and ethical considerations in health problems (true experiments and informed consent)
    • Cognitive determinants of health
    • Biopsychosocial model of health and well-being

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • Temporal validity refers to the extent to which we could confidently expect the same results from an old study to apply today. This study was conducted over 60 years ago. Do you think we would get the same results? Why/why not?
  • Cognitive appraisals might affect the stress response, but what factors might affect someone’s cognitive appraisal in the first place? For example, do you think gender, race or socioeconomic status might be a factor?
  • What are the ethical issues involved in this study?


  • Lazarus, Richard. A Laboratory Approach to the Dynamics of Psychological Stress. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 8. No 2. Sept. 1963.