Poiesis & Praxis

, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 131–138

The SPAARS approach: implications for psychopathy


    • Center of Excellence “Cognitive Interaction Technology”University of Bielefeld

DOI: 10.1007/s10202-008-0059-x

Cite this article as:
Khetrapal, N. Poiesis Prax (2009) 6: 131. doi:10.1007/s10202-008-0059-x


Schematic, propositional, analogical and associative representational Systems (SPAARS) is the integrated cognitive model of emotion proposed by Power and Dalgleish (Cognition and Emotion: from order to disorder. The Psychology Press, England, 1997). It is multi-level in nature and includes four different levels of representation. In SPAARS, emotions are described as appraisal-based according to an individual’s goals, thus making the theory functional in nature. Basic emotions possess an innate component and hence can be elicited automatically, since these emotions might already have been appraised in an individual’s evolutionary past. Thus, the theory proposes two routes for the generation of emotions. It provides an useful approach within which both basic and complex emotions can readily be understood. The theory can also be applied in order to explain emotional disorders as well as to generate novel therapeutic interventions for them. In the current review the SPAARS approach has been used to understand psychopathy, also called the disorder of empathy (a complex emotion). The theory provides a new perspective for looking at psychopaths. It suggests that psychopathy may arise either due to a problem generating the basic emotion of sadness, the complex emotion of empathy or a combination of the two. The interventions suggested would also vary depending upon the underlying nature of the problem.


SPAARS (Schematic, Propositional, Analogical and Associative Representational Systems) ist ein integriertes kognitives Modell zum Verständnis von Emotionsverläufen von Power and Dalegleish (1997). Es ist mehrstufig und besteht aus vier verschiedenen Repräsentationsebenen. Im SPAARS-Modell werden Emotionen als auf Bewertungen basierend beschrieben und in ein Verhältnis zu individuellen Zielen gesetzt. Dadurch ist die Theorie funktioneller Natur. Eine Komponente der Basisemotionen ist angeboren und so treten diese Emotionen automatisch zu Tage, da sie eventuell bereits in der individuellen Evolutionsgeschichte bewertet wurden. Die Theorie schlägt demnach zwei Möglichkeiten bei der Entstehung von Emotionen vor. Sie bietet einen hilfreichen Ansatz, der gleichermaßen zu einem guten Verständnis von Basisemotionen und komplexen Emotionen führt. Die Theorie dient auch zur Erklärung emotionaler Störungen und kann zur Entwicklung neuer Therapien verwendet werden. Im vorliegenden Beitrag wird das SPAARS-Modell für das Verständnis der Psychopathie verwendet, welche auch als Empathiestörung bezeichnet wird (komplexe Emotion). Die Theorie bietet einen neuen Blick auf Fälle von Psychopathie. Gemäß der Theorie entsteht Psychopathie möglicherweise dadurch, dass entweder die Basisemotion Trauer oder die komplexe Empathie-Emotion oder beide in Kombination nicht entwickelt werden können. Die jeweils empfohlenen therapeutischen Maßnahmen wären dann von der jeweiligen Art des Problems abhängig.


SPAARS (Schematic, Propositional, Analogical and Associative Representational Systems) est un modèle multi-niveaux du traitement de l’émotion et des cognitions, proposé par Power et Dalgleish (1997). Il comporte quatre niveaux différents de représentation. Selon SPAARS, les émotions d’un individu sont basées sur ses propres attentes, l’image mentale se transformant en réalité. Les émotions primaires comportent une composante innée et peuvent être éclipsées automatiquement puisqu’elles ont déjà été appréciées dans le passé évolutif de l’individu. Ce modèle propose que l’émotion se produise à travers deux voies. Il nous offre une approche utile à la compréhension des émotions autant primaires que complexes. Cette théorie peut également nous donner une explication des désordres émotionnels, ainsi que leur traitement par l’élaboration de nouvelles interventions thérapeutiques. La présente étude utilise SPAARS pour la compréhension de la psychopathie, aussi appelée désordre de l’empathie (une émotion complexe). Cette approche nous offre un nouveau point de vue sur les psychopathes. Elle suggère que la psychopathie se développe suite à un problème générant l’émotion primaire de la tristesse ou celle complexe de l’empathie ou bien une combinaison des deux. Le traitement adapté dépendra de la nature sous-jacente du problème.

1 Introduction

Schematic, propositional, analogical and associative representational Systems (SPAARS) is the integrated cognitive model of emotion proposed by Power and Dalegleish (1997). It is a multi-level model. The initial processing of stimuli occurs through specific sensory systems that are collectively termed the ‘analogical processing system’. This system can play a crucial role in emotional disorders, for instance, where certain sights, smells, noises, etc., become inherent parts of a traumatic event. The output from this system then feeds into three semantic representation systems. These systems operate in parallel. At the lowest level is the associative system, which takes the form of a number of modularized connectionist networks. The intermediate level has the propositional system, which has language like representation, though it is not language-specific. There is no direct route from the intermediate level to emotions but they feed either through appraisals at the schematic level or directly through the associative system. The highest level is called the schematic model level. It has the merit of storing information in a flexible manner along with the traditional schema approach. At this level, the generation of emotion occurs through the appraisal process. Different types of appraisals exist for eliciting five basic emotions like sadness, happiness, anger, fear and disgust.

An appraisal for sadness would focus on the loss (actual or possible) of some valued goal to an individual. An individual will feel happy when he or she successfully moves towards the completion of some valued goal. When an appraisal of a physical or social threat to one’s self or some valued goal is made by the person, then he or she will experience fear. The appraisal of the blocking of a goal or the frustration of a role through an agent leads to feelings of anger. A person will feel disgust when he or she appraises a person, object or idea repulsive to the self or some valued goal (Power and Dalegleish 1997).

These appraisals provide the starting point for complex emotions or a sequence of emotions. In this scheme, complex emotions, as well as the disorders of emotions, are derived from the basic emotions. A second important feature of emotional disorders is that these may be derived from the coupling of two or more basic emotions or appraisal cycles that further embroider on the existing appraisals through which basic emotions are generated, or through the integration of appraisals which include the goals of others. To give an example of the above three, the coupling of happiness and sadness can generate nostalgia. Indignation can result from the appraisal of anger combined with the further appraisal that the object of anger is an individual who is an inferior in the social hierarchy. Empathy results from sadness when combined with the loss of another person’s goal.

2 Two routes to emotion

The need for two routes for the generation of emotions is based, in part, on the fact that basic emotions have an innate prewired component and additionally, that certain emotions may come to be elicited automatically. These two routes are not completely separable. Thus, genetics provides a psychological starting point, though the subsequent developmental pathways may be different for each individual.

An additional way in which emotions might come to be generated through the direct route is from repeated pairings of certain event-emotion sequences that eventually lead to the automatisation of the whole sequence. This repetition bypasses the need for any appraisal and the event has important implications for one’s goals and thus becomes directly associated with emotion. An example of the involvement of the direct route in an emotional disorder is phobia. In this disorder, the automatic processing of objects is anxiety-provoking, even though it is non-threatening but due to previous encounters with the object in an individual’s past always in anxiety-provoking situations, it comes to be associated with anxiety. One of the extreme forms of possible automatisation is that the development of emotion modules could become autonomous. It would thus become difficult to alter because the positive feedback between the different levels would cause the module to be locked in place. For instance, in some cases the loss of an important goal in an individual’s life becomes coupled with feelings of worthlessness, and eventually leads to suicide. The two routes, for example, can also sometimes generate conflicting emotions, as in when the individual may appraise a situation in a happy way while the direct route is generating a different emotion such as sadness.

3 Inhibition and facilitation

These two processes can operate at any level of the model. Sometimes an emotion may be temporarily blocked from expression because it is inappropriate in a certain situation according to cultural norms. In extreme cases, both of the routes to emotions can be inhibited; however, when these inhibitory processes break down, this can pose a problem for the individual. Two emotions can then become locked in a facilitatory loop in which activation from one emotion reactivates the other. In such cases, facilitatory processes play a role in the interlocking of the two emotions. For instance, there would be a within module loop between the schematic level and the direct route which might be apparent in emotions like fear, depression and so on. The length of time during which the individual would remain coupled in this state depends on various factors, such as the extent to which the emotions are modularized, the occurrence of further misfortune, etc.

4 Functions of emotions

Within the framework of the model, emotions can act as rapid switching mechanisms between goals. This becomes essential since, within a modular system, there are numerous goals and it is crucial to have mechanisms that can put a current goal on hold while another more immediate goal is given priority. Each of the five basic emotions can provide a different type of short-cut. For instance, fear provides the individual with the ability to switch rapidly to a threatened survival goal. These short-cuts are by and large adaptive and at the same time they run the risk of running beyond their range of applicability and become maladaptive in nature.

5 Therapeutic implications

The principle in the development of emotion is that it can become modularized, which is a characteristic of the functional organization of the brain. In the case of emotional disorders, the experience or expression of these modularized emotions is either completely inhibited or only rarely experienced and that, too, in a dissociated state from the self since its experience is in conflict with one’s sense of self. This can occur for a variety of reasons, such as childhood trauma, neglect and so on. The basic need of therapy in this case would be to establish a trustful relation with the client where the client can re-experience the rejected emotions and then gradually be encouraged to integrate these back into the self.

The therapeutic technique for working with emotional disorders varies depending on which route to emotion is involved in the disorder. For instance, the person can be provided with a new schematic model for the appraisal of events. Once this model has been accepted, the recovery is faster. This type of therapy will work in situations where the schematic level is involved in the disorder. This is an example of fast change processes occurring in therapy. But the patient may continue to experience the maladaptive emotions through the activation of the direct route that is slow to change and thus is an example of slow processes in recovery. In such cases, exposure-based techniques can be helpful. There may also be cases in which a combination of the two techniques will be most effective. Therapies that try to focus only on the propositional level of representation may not be successful if the higher schematic models are flawed.

6 Sadness and empathy as explained by SPAARS

Sadness can be generated through appraisals that consist of information about goals and their completion. Sadness is elicited when a person perceives the loss or failure of some valued goal. When such a perception is for another’s goal, the emotion of sadness is labeled as sympathy.

Since sadness is a basic emotion within the SPAARS approach, the appraisal to elicit it must have occurred sometime in an individual’s past or in the evolutionary history of the species to which the individual belongs. Thus, the accessing of the schematic model is “short-circuited”. In this sense, one important social function/goal of sadness would be to strengthen social bonds and thus lead to altruism (Izard 1993).

Empathy is a complex emotion. Empathy is proposed to include both cognitive and affective components (Eisenberg and Strayer 1987). Empathy can be differentiated from pure emotional contagion and, to accomplish this, some differentiation of one’s own from another’s emotional state is required (Feshbach 1978). There should also be some awareness of this distinction. According to this definition, very young infants experience emotional contagion and children and adults can experience both. Empathy should also be differentiated from sympathy (Eisenberg 2004). According to Eisenberg (2004) sympathy involves emotion but it can also stem from only cognitive processes like taking the perspective of another’s condition (Batson 1991).

According to the SPAARS model, there might be three routes to the generation of a complex emotion. Thus accordingly, empathy can be aroused in a person when the emotion of sadness stems from the appraisal process that takes into account the loss of the goals of others, which in turn, would give rise to sympathy. This could be further combined with the appraisals that focus on the differentiation of one’s own emotional state from that of another. The appraisal would also include some awareness of this distinction.

7 Disorder of empathy

Psychopathy is termed as a disorder of empathy (Soderstrom 2003). According to Blair (2001), psychopathy in both childhood and adulthood is based on high scores on clinically based rating scales: for children, the psychopathy-screening device (PSD) and for adults, the revised psychopathy checklist (PCL). Factor analyses of behaviours rated on both the PSD and PCL reveal two independent factors: (1) an emotion dysfunction factor defined largely by emotional shallowness and lack of guilt and (2) an antisocial behaviour factor defined largely by the commission of a wide variety of offences. Socioeconomic status and IQ are correlated with scores on the antisocial factor, but neither is associated with scores on the emotion dysfunction factor. This happens because the scores on the emotion dysfunction factor seem to be determined, to a certain extent, by different influences than the scores on the antisocial behaviour factor. Scores on the antisocial behaviour factor also decline with age but scores on the emotion dysfunction factor remain constant.

According to Mitchell and Blair (2000) empathy induction is a successful method for socialization as it effectively focuses the child’s attention on the natural punishment value, which the fearful or sad expressions of others hold. They argue that psychopathic individuals are less sensitive to the sadness and fear of others and therefore are far more difficult to socialize. Torres (2002) has also shown that psychopathy is characterized by early maladaptive schemas and cognitive distortions.

Thus, psychopaths may have a problem generating empathy upon seeing another person in distress. This lack of empathy might be associated either with the basic emotion of sadness or only the basic route of sadness might be functioning properly but the problem may arise in the generation of empathy when the higher level of abstract schemas need to be combined with the emotion of sadness in concordance with Torres’s findings (2002) or it might be possible that the functioning of both the routes may be faulty (these may be inhibited). This puzzle maybe answered by carrying out further research with appropriate tasks sensitive to each of these problems.

The search for the cause of these deficits may be a different research question altogether since the problem with the routes can arise due to a number of different reasons, for instance, genetic (Blonigen et al. 2003; Viding et al. 2005) or environmental (Charney 2003) causes. Identifying the cause may have implications for therapeutic interventions. If the cause is genetic, then little can be done for the people afflicted by it except to provide them with some helpful assistance. However, if the cause is environmental, then the framework provided by SPAARS can be employed.

8 Therapeutic interventions

A new schematic model for the appraisal of events can be provided to psychopaths and this could assist them in generating proper appraisals for another person’s loss. This technique would only work if the root problem is the faulty schematic model of the psychopathic person. The change by this route is faster.

However, if the problem lies with generating the basic emotion of sadness, then other techniques (which are usually employed when this route is involved) should be used. These include exposure techniques of sadness-inducing events. This kind of therapeutic intervention would lead to a process of change that is slower in comparison to the previous technique. Finally, if both the routes are involved, then a mixture of these techniques can be used. Thus, a thorough assessment should be conducted before any plans for intervention are prepared for the psychopaths. This will help to determine which route to emotion is more problematic, as the two routes are not completely separate from each other.

9 Conclusion

The SPAARS approach provides a new cognitive framework within which the generation of both basic and complex emotions can be explained. It can readily be applied, not only for understanding normal emotions, but also for disordered emotions. It is not only a parsimonious theory but it also generates empirical predictions that can be readily explored to gain empirical knowledge and to test it against other theories. The results obtained can also be employed to further refine the SPAARS approach. The theory also has therapeutic implications for emotional disorders and thus it can suggest new techniques for treating these. Future efforts should be made to apply the theory to other emotional disorders; this will not only advance the understanding of these disorders but will also suggest new ways of providing therapeutic interventions. Future efforts can also be geared towards the application of the theory for understanding the emotional development in children. Though SPAARS is a cognitive approach, it can be further explored within the framework of cognitive neuroscience.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008