Affective Events Theory

Affective events theory (AET) is a theory of affect (the broader term for emotional experiences, including emotion and mood) in the workplace. In addition to focusing on affect, it encompasses cognitions, behavior, attitudes, and other crucial psychological constructs to explain job behavior and performance. The theory primarily builds on the already established cognitive appraisal models and has gathered support from many areas of study in the field of emotions to create a more encompassing theory of work behavior.

Affective events theory proposes that there are two paths to job behaviors, both of which are at least partially influenced by affective reactions to events at work. However, cognitive processes play an essential role in the creation of these reactions. The theory builds on past theoretical successes while also adding a few new elements (in particular, the notion of time is essential to the model, as well as a more detailed explanation of emotion in the workplace) in explaining job behavior.

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Assumptions of Affective Events Theory

Affective events theory makes several assumptions about the workplace and the constructs that describe people’s reactions to events that happen there. The first is that job satisfaction is different from affect. Nevertheless, AET also assumes that affect contributes to job satisfaction and can be used to help predict job performance. Related to that, AET assumes that affect influences performance, typically in a detrimental way because emotion is assumed to draw resources from other areas, such as cognitive processing, motivation, and attention, among others.

Another major assumption in the AET framework is that events happen over time, which changes affect continuously. Those events influence a person’s immediate affective state but also vary over time as new events arise. Some events are likely to create positive reactions, others negative, and the degree of intensity will also vary from event to event. Because affect is continuously changing within an individual, its influence on behavior is also continuously changing.

The Structure of Affective Events Theory

Affective events theory proposes the following model for predicting workplace behavior. Work environment features (such as office features) precede work events (such as a meeting), and those work events cause affective reactions. Dispositions influence the causal transition from work events to affective reactions, as well as the affective reactions themselves. Those affective reactions then influence affect-driven behaviors, as well as work attitudes. Work attitudes are also influenced by the work environment. Work attitudes in turn influence judgment-driven behaviors.

From that model, one can see that AET proposes two different paths to behavior, both of which are preceded by affective reactions. Affect-driven behaviors stem directly from affective reactions to events in the workplace. Judgment-driven behaviors, on the other hand, are arrived at by a longer route, going from affective reactions to work attitudes (which are also influenced by work environment features) and then to behavior. However, the starting point for AET is the event. Within AET, an event is defined as a change in the environmental circumstances that one is currently experiencing. That change then elicits affect, which then can influence behavior directly (affect-driven behavior) or go through job attitudes to influence behavior indirectly (judgment-driven behavior).

Affect-driven behavior is an almost instantaneous reaction to an event. In many cases, affect-driven responses happen almost immediately after an event occurs. An example might be when, after being yelled at by the boss, an employee quits his or her job without any thought in the heat of the moment. Judgment-driven behaviors, on the other hand, go through a cognitive evaluation via job attitudes. This is a longer process and is usually more deliberate. Referring back to the example, if the employee did not quit immediately but went back to his or her desk and thought briefly about the other components of the job, such as his or her coworkers and the job tasks, and then factored those considerations into his or her decision and reinterpreted the situation, the result would be a judgment-driven behavior. This process might or might not lead the person to quit. The resulting behaviors of affect-driven and judgment-driven processes may not be different, but the decision process is. As the terms themselves imply, affect-driven behavior is primarily influenced by immediate emotional reactions to an event and is typically regarded as a single-step process, whereas judgment-driven behavior is influenced by both emotion and cognition and is regarded as a two-step process that involves a reinterpretation of the original event and the emotion associated with it.

Affective Events Theory Appraisal of Events Leading To Behaviors

Cognitive appraisal theories argue that people strive to make meaning of work events. The meaning of the events then sets the stage for emotional reactions to the event. There are many theories on how people appraise meaning, but the general idea is that every situation has a meaning underlying the event and those meanings are arrived at by a person’s interpretations of the situation. Different appraisals of situations lead to different emotions and then behaviors among individuals. Individuals emphasize different appraisal processes when assigning meaning to an event, and that is why individuals can have different emotional reactions to the same situation.

The process of appraising is often regarded as a two-step model. The first step, usually termed primary appraisal, includes several mechanisms, but the basic idea is how much an event is congruent or incongruent with one’s goals, attitudes, values, and so forth. If an event is seen as congruent, it is assigned a positive value, and if incongruent, the event is viewed negatively. The primary appraisal mechanisms are concerned with whether a stimulus has to do with a person’s well-being, which leads to a basic assignment of “good” and “bad” labels. In many instances, the primary appraisals assign enough meaning to the phenomenon to elicit an affective response. Examples of these affective responses can be positive emotions, such as love and relief, but also include negative emotions, such as fright and anxiety. A fuller example with workplace behavior consequences might be one’s computer freezing up, which might lead one to hit it out of frustration via primary appraisal, as only a “bad” label has been placed on the event and the reaction is immediate without cognitive factors contributing to the behavior.

Secondary appraisals consist of more cognitively driven processes, such as future expectations or memory, in addition to the primary appraisal. Many emotions occur only when secondary appraisals take place in conjunction with the primary appraisal. An example of a negative emotion that requires both stages is anger. A positive emotion that requires the secondary stage of appraisal is happiness. In both cases (anger and happiness), the emotion is targeted at a specific situation and not a general affective response, as is the case with primary appraisals. In other words, secondary appraisals lead to the assignment of more complex meaning to the event; no longer is the situation just “good” or “bad.” Once that greater meaning is assigned to an event, a discrete emotion then emerges that influences one’s behavior in conjunction with current job attitudes. So in the example of a computer freezing up, instead of hitting it immediately in a pure affective reaction, the person would pause for a brief moment and the event would be evaluated in two stages, first if the event is good or bad via primary appraisal, and then adding other information to deal with the situation via secondary appraisal. Affective events theory proposes that if job attitudes are positive, one might not hit the computer and would instead take the time to call a technician for help. If attitudes are negative, one might still just hit the computer.

The secondary appraisal process that leads to judgment-driven behavior is more deliberative and requires individuals to take more time (although it could be only a few seconds) to assign the value as compared with primary appraisals and affect-driven behavior. Primary appraisals that lead to affect-driven behaviors are not completely cognition-free, although they are more automatic reactions. However, if the strength of the initial appraisal and the ensuing emotional reaction is robust enough, the primary appraisal and the affect-driven response can last for some time.

For every event, the possible responses of an individual to a given stimuli may initially seem endless, but once a person appraises the situation, the behavior choices become narrowed down based on the person’s affective reactions. To date, there is little research on what types of behavior result from the different paths. However, by definition, affect-driven behaviors should be more impulsive and less controlled than judgment-driven behaviors, which consider more factors before a behavior is pursued. Therefore, affect-driven behaviors should disrupt job performance because of their potentially more abrasive social nature, as well as their ability to draw cognitive resources. Judgment-driven behaviors also should reduce job performance, because they reduce time spent on job tasks as well as draw mental resources away from those tasks.

Affective Events Theory Summary

Affective events theory is a theory of how events in the workplace (in particular, those events that change a person’s affect) influence behaviors at work over time. Affect then influences behavior in two possible ways, the first being a direct cause of affect-driven behavior, which is an almost automatic emotional response to an event. The second way behavior is influenced by affect is through its influences on cognitions and attitudes (in addition to the initial affective response), which in turn cause judgment-driven behavior; this is regarded as a more deliberate response to an event or series of events.


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