In one of our previous posts – How to design atmospheres attuned to the concerns of the user? – we briefly mentioned the basic model of emotions. In this post we’ll discuss the model in more detail.

People differ in their emotional responses towards a given building. Nevertheless, in spite of these interpersonal differences, the process of emotion, i.e. the way in which emotions are elicited, is universal. There is a basic process model of emotions. This model describes the eliciting conditions of emotions with the use of three underlying key variables: appraisal, concern and stimulus.

Pieter Desmet created a basic model of emotions for his research (Designing Emotions), which was drawn up on the basis of this definition and on the related appraisal models developed by psychologists such as Roseman (1), Ortony et al. (2), and Lazarus (3). This model, shown here on the left, visualizes the eliciting process of emotions.

Three key variables are identified in the basic model: appraisal, concern and stimulus. These three variables, and their interplay, determine if a stimulus (which can be an architectural space or any other stimulus) elicits an emotion, and if so, which particular emotion is experienced.

The basic model explained

An architectural example: Imagine Anne and Thomas searching for a new house:

The second house they visited was what Anne was looking for. The house reminded Anne of the house of her favourite uncle. She immediately had the desire to buy it. Although it was not the favorite architectural style of Thomas they decided to go inside. To Anne’s (unpleasant) surprise there were holes in the wall. Thomas on the other hand, was inspired by these strange holes and thought that they could become very interesting windows. Anne already started to feel better about the idea of buying this house. When they bought the house Anne was very proud about the windows they made in the holes.

1. Appraisal

According to appraisal researchers, all emotions are preceded and elicited by an appraisal (4). An appraisal is a non-intellectual, automatic evaluation of the significance of a stimulus for one’s personal well-being. It is this personal significance of a product, rather than the product itself, which causes the emotion. Because appraisals mediate between products and emotions, different individuals who appraise the same product in different ways will feel different emotions. Thus, the occurrence of Thomas’s inspiration versus Anne’s unpleasant surprise in response to the holes in the wall is the result of their different appraisals. Thomas, who felt inspiration, evaluated the holes as beneficial, whereas Anne evaluated it as harmful. Similarly, a given individual who appraises the same building in different ways at different times will feel different emotions. At first, Anne felt unpleasantly surprised because she appraised the holes as harmful to her well-being, but later she felt proud because she appraised the same holes as beneficial. Furthermore, a person can also appraise a given building in different ways simultaneously, and thus experience ‘mixed emotions.’

2. Concerns

Every emotion hides a concern, that is, a more or less stable preference for certain states of the world. (5) According to Frijda, concerns can be regarded as points of reference in the appraisal process. Thus, the significance of a stimulus for our wellbeing is determined by an appraised concern match or mismatch: stimuli that match our concerns are appraised as beneficial, and those that mismatch our concerns as harmful. This principle also applies to architecture: a building elicits an emotion only if it is appraised as relevant to a person’s concern. Why was Anne proud of the windows in the holes? Because it matched with her concern for social acceptance. Why was Thomas inspired by the holes in the wall? Because it matched his concern for creative stimulation. The number and variety of human concerns is vast. Types of concerns reported in the research literature are, for example, drives, needs, instincts, motives, goals and values. (6) Some of our concerns are universal, for example the concern for safety, for love and for self-esteem. Others are more personal, like Thomas’ concern that the house was not in his favorite architectural style. Some concerns, such as the concern for happiness and righteousness, are abstract. Others are more concrete, such as the concern for being home before dark or for owning a house.

3. Stimulus

According to Frijda (5), any perceived change has the potential to elicit an emotion. This can be some event, e.g. someone saying something to us or encountering something in a space. Anne’s unpleasant surprise was evoked by the event of seeing the holes in the wall. Not only actual events but also remembered or imagined events have the potential to elicit emotions. We all know from experience that thinking of someone we love is sometimes enough to elicit strong emotions. Or merely fantasizing about a planned summer vacation can fill us with anticipatory excitement. Similarly, Anne’s concern that the house reminded her of the house of her favorite uncle.


The basic model of emotions applies to all human emotions:

A stimulus elicits an emotion when it is appraised as either harmful or beneficial for one of our concerns.

In the post How do emotions work? – 4 Examples we’ll give you some specific examples of how the basic model of emotions works for architecture.

What do you think of the basic model of emotions?

Does it have the potential to give us better insight into human – environment interaction? Let us know what you think. And if you have any other comments, questions, ideas – please let us know.


  • ROSEMAN, I.J. (2001) A model of appraisal in the emotion system: integrating theory, research, and applications.
  • ORTONY, A., CLORE, G.L. & COLLINS, A. (1988) The Cognitive Structure of Emotions – affiliate link
  • LAZARUS, R.S. (1991) Emotion and Adaptation – affiliate link
  • ROSEMAN, I.J., SMITH, G.A. (2001) Appraisal theory: assumptions, varieties, controversies.
  • FRIJDA, N.H. (1986) The Emotions – affiliate link
  • SCHERER, K.R. (2001) Appraisal considered as a process of multilevel sequential checking.

10 thoughts on “How do emotions work? – Basic model of Emotions

  1. I study Architecture and I am fascinated by aspects of Architectural theory especially pertaining to sensation, emotion, and affect produced by architectural environments.
    Depending on various contexts such as the natural environment or built environment in which the structure is located or the origin and background of the viewer this theory is obviuosly highly subjective.

    Right now I am residing in Barcelona Spain taking on a studio course where we are exploring mapping. While continuing the design process I am deriving levels of intimacy through line of sight.

    Due to my interest in affect produced by architectural environments I believe that certain aspects of mapping, such as intimacy, could be a derivative of sensation and emotion therefore making it possible to map despite its current level of subjectivity.

    My plan essentially is to gather a consensus to an extent through a blog that is in the works. For it to be successful I would have to explain essentially what you are explaining (very well by the way) before beginning to test my theory.

    I am hoping to direct my followers toward your forum here so that they may better understand what I am pursuing.

    Fantastic job I cant wait to here more.

    1. Thanks, Austin.
      It seems that we have a similar fascination. I would be very interested in your theories and findings on this topic. Can you give me the address to your blog when it is up and running?

      In the mean time you could have a look at an interesting approach to mapping emotion by researcher Christian Noldt: Biomapping. It could be useful for the development of your theories. Good luck!

      1. Amazing. I have been unsuccessful at finding some concrete data such as that to back up the theory and push it along in the process. Essentially what he has created is a basis for the first step in my process.

        Right now that first step is macro context being one city as a whole (just to start then hopefully if successful moving into a global context-i.e. the “new” macro context)

        The second, with respect, would be what I am calling the “diamond in the rough.” So basically a certain structure as a whole and it’s level of sensation produced in the context of those in it’s vicinity.

        At the micro levels obviously would be the building within it’s own context and in some instances the spike in sensation produced from lines of sight to the exterior but still in it’s own context as it would create the foreground for that sight.

        Hopefully some collaboration can take place and we can begin to develope certain vocabularies making these theories less subjective than their current state. As our population begins to grow and further discussion continues this can be achieved.

      2. I like the fact that you’re planning to look at the experience of a building on every scale – from global scale all the way to detail scale. This is significantly different from our approach here at Experiencing Architecture as we mostly looked at the building scale – the occupant occupying the stimulus.

        It could be very interesting to see whether the basic model also applies on a bigger scale. The way I see it, it probably will as occupants would still have their concerns and stimulae. The main difference would probably be in the kind of tools required to design that specific stimulus.

        I look forward to reading more about your ideas and findings! I hope we can continue this discussion in the near future.

        If you have any other comments, questions or ideas, please let us know.

  2. Initially I tried to propose this concept at a “micro” level to various established architects and my professors however it seemed as though they had difficulty understanding its application to the tool of mapping not so much the origional concepts.
    so i have found that the most success I have had in providing a clear proposal is when i break down the components beginning on the macro level then working my way down to the micro level.

    For example, when attempting to describe this proposal to an individual not exposed to these certain readings and studies of affectual atmospheres and sensation i am confronted with the
    task of providing concrete data in order to make these concepts more tangible.

    First, I make the individual aware of how drastic of an effect certain media can have on individuals emotions. These effects are produced by sensation, psycoanalitical backgoround and affectual situations, then I lead them
    into the more complex realm of experinecing a piece of architecture within thier own reality.

    Second, i give them the example of something simple, like “logic” behind the creation of the path that a tour bus might take and why this tour bus takes this path. For example, “Well of course it’s beautiful, I mean look at it.” Is this statemnt derived from ones true understanding that this is “beauty” or is this a simple mindless act of speech meerly becuase of the fact
    that the tour bus brought them there so it must be beautiful.
    Yeah, yeah seems dumb but there is more to it than that. When you place certain destinations on a tour they in a sense become part of the same direct context(i.e. a city). So in a
    sense the spike in sensation becomes less significant.(somewhat)
    Which led me to my next break down.

    “The diamond in the rough,” if every building were equally beautiful then no ‘spikes’ would exist. But that is not the case
    even in a wonderful location facades and forms become rather mundane until there she is, ‘the diamond in the rough.’ So by jumping from the context of the tour bus to the context of those in it’s direct vicinity the spike will increase.

    For the final breakdown I have been using ‘Sagrada Familia’ as my prime example since I am in Barcelona studying right now.
    Also, because of it’s scale and purpose it actually is the easiest piece I have found and everyone knows it. I have found three simple contexts that produce three separate sensations subjective in their spike but from my discussions I have found the consensus to be fairly similar overall.

    The first context would be experiencing the overall form from ground level exterior. The natural, yet intense articulation that tells a story, and leaves you begging to FEEL more. The inside becomes the outside at certain moments diverting a portion of the sensations and once again leaves you wondering what is beyond those doors. The context it is in leaves a dominating spike from ground level.

    The second would be the interior which for obvious reasons is within it’s own context. Smooth less articulated space but white to capture the natural beauty casted by the light through the stained glass, sends a chill up your spine. The space is less articulated than the exterior, inverting the traditional style of a cathedral, so that all attention is directed to one focal point. Several spikes in it’s own context could be derived at certain moments but overall fairly equal as a space.

    The final context would be at the top where the true beauty of Gaudi’s interesting, colorful forms come to life. They become
    the foreground of your sight with the entire city as the context. Amazing.

    This is when I have been most successful. But peole need concrete data. So now I am trying to develop a method and vocabulary under consensus for particular sensations to graphically display these spikes as a map. With that map my hypothesis is that I will be able to justify my moves in a design. Using other mapping techniques as derivatives instead of the current method I am using atmosphere as a derivative
    of intimacy.

    1. That’s quite a long story, Austin. But I see what you mean, I also have some difficulty convincing the status quo of the potential of architecture based on sensations, emotions and affect of its users.

      Lately I’ve been thinking about the tangibility of designing atmospheres attuned to the concerns of the user as well. Do we really need concrete data or evidence? I’m just thinking out loud here. I’ve been reading this article about measuring place – using your mind and body to record experience by Chloe Sambell. She describes her experience of space using a phenomenological approach – she measures by gathering words; observing phenomena like sound, light and shadow; making sketches and observing people. She also uses her own body to “gauge relative proportion and scale of elements.” (1) Maybe it’s enough “to describe the complex relationship between person and environment without reduction or abstraction.” (1) – abstraction as in the concrete data you write about. I’ll try to find a link to the article for you to read.

      The reason why I’m thinking about this tangibility is that the experience of architecture is a very intuitive and subjective affair. Everybody experiences architecture, but mostly on a subconscious level. It’s hard to find out about someone’s sensations and emotions without influencing the situation and/or the person. Making people conscious of their experiences could and probably will influence their experiences. We’re still trying to find ways of distilling experiences without influencing them.

      For mapping your findings I mentioned Christian Noldt with his Biomapping method. We’ve tried his method ourselves during a workshop. We’ve gathered data by measuring people sweat and connect this data to a context. The hardest thing was to translate the data into experiences. We knew when someone had an emotional response to a context, but we still didn’t know how they experienced the context without asking them about it and thus influencing their experience. It’s a complicated issue, that’s for sure!

      1. SAMBELL, C. Measuring place: Using Mind and Body to Record Experience. Welsh School of Architecture – Cardiff, Wales: MADE magazine

      1. interesting thoughts
        talking about evidence, check the following link about
        “Evidence Based Design (EBD)”
        I think the architecture practice needs a more “evidence based design approach”. Which doesn’t mean that everything needs to be based on scientific proved facts, but the designer can at least be more aware and more honest about his or her design decisions.
        I believe “Evidence Based Design” can lead to better design decisions, improved outcomes
        for the users (!), provide new knowledge for the field, and increase credibility for design professionals who embrace it.

  3. I am heading to the Netherlands to study so my next comment will be a more in depth display of a particular aspect that I will be starting. Then you can find graphic displays shortly on my blog. It is funny paul sent that link because I am actually from Texas A&M University and I will be applying these aspects in the hospital I will be designing next year.

    Here is the link.
    I hope this collaboration can continue.

    1. Hey Austin,
      Just had a look at your blog… interesting! Looking forward to reading more, especially about your studies in the Netherlands. I’m Dutch you know.
      Where are you going to study in the Netherlands?

      Could you tell us a little more about the method used at Texas A&M University and Evidence Based Design?
      Maybe by sending us an email at: experiencingarchitecture [at]

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