Vol XI, No. 2, 2011 Comments (0)

Hong LI*¹ & Yueh-Ting LEE²

¹Tsinghua University, Beijing, China

²University of Toledo, Ohio, USA



Based on research on incidental emotional states in relation to the A-B-C model in which “A” means activating events, “B” means belief systems (e.g., irrational beliefs), and “C” refers to the consequence of emotions (Ellis, 1977, 1995, 2006), two questions were examined: a) Can incidental emotional states relate to ‘C’ (integral emotional responses)?, and b) how might incidental emotional states play a mediating role in the relationship between ‘A’ and ‘C’?  A survey study was conducted to collect data, and the participants were 500 college students from Beijing, China (mean age=20.48, SD =1.79). To explore the relationship of incidental emotional states to the A-B-C model, we administered to student participants the Incidental Affect Scale, Integral Affect Scale, and College Stress Scale. The results addressed our questions. Implications and limitations in this study were also discussed.


Keywords: stress, incidental emotional states, integral emotional responses, ABC model



Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and research have become popular in the USA and internationally. Albert Ellis’ (1977, 1995, 2006) Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) is an important type of CBT (see Bernard, 2009). REBT is largely based on the A-B-C model of psychological disturbance and therapy where ‘A’ stands for activating events including stress and stressful life events, ‘B’ refers to belief systems including irrational beliefs, and ‘C’ refers to the emotional and behavioral consequences of these irrational beliefs. To a certain extent, the ABC model can help explain how dysfunctional thoughts develop.  One of the major assumptions of this model is that a positive relationship exists between the separate constructs of irrational beliefs ‘B’ and psychological disturbances ‘C’ (Corey, 2008; Weinrach, 1996).

However, the relationship of ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ has become somewhat complex since two types of emotion have been identified. When we study the effects of emotion on judgment, decision, and behavior, types of emotional phenomena could be broken down into incidental emotional states and integral emotional responses (Bodenhausen, 1993; Bodenhausen, Todd, & Becker, 2007).

According to Pham (2007), “incidental emotional states are those whose source is unrelated to the object of judgment or decision (p. 156).” These states include current emotions, “not caused by the target object,” but “pre-existing mood states enduring emotional dispositions such as chronic anxiety (p. 156).” On the other hand, integral emotional responses are “those experienced in relation to the object of judgment or decision (p.156).” More specifically, integral emotional responses are emotions and feelings that are elicited by features of the target object, whether these features are real, perceived, or only imagined (Cohen, Pham, & Andrade, 2007). The purpose of this paper is to examine how incidental emotional states are related to the A-B-C model, and further to explore the working ways of incidental emotional states on the A-B-C model.

What is the connection between the A-B-C model and the two types of emotion? If “A” refers to the target object, and “C” is the consequence of “A” and “B”, then “C” refers to integral emotional responses, rather than incidental emotional states. However, it is unclear whether the incidental emotional states could play some role in the A-B-C model. According to Ellis (1995, 2006; also see Bernard, 2009), people’s beliefs are said to be irrational when they are unrealistic, illogical, absolutistic, and devoutly held, even when they are unprovable and unfalsifiable. More specifically, people have strong inclinations to disturb themselves consciously and unconsciously. Primarily they take their goals and values that were learned from their families and/or cultures and changing these goals and values into “shoulds,” “oughts,” and musts” (Ellis, 1992, also see Corey, 2008, p. 377).

Some early work on feelings-as-information suggested that feelings arising incidentally from the person’s mood state are interpreted through some thinking rules (Schwarz & Clore, 1996). Moreover, feelings also convey metacognitive information about thinking processes (Schwarz et al., 1991). When we reconsider the elements of the A-B-C model, it seems that not only activating events but also incidental emotional states may be related to people’s beliefs or thought processes.

Pham (2007) pointed out that “incidental emotional states have a variety of rational and irrational influences on judgments, decisions, emotions, and behaviors (p.157 ).” They influence people’s reasoning processes, the accuracy of their beliefs, their ability to exert self-control, or their tendency to take risks or to make accurate attributions. A number of studies have suggested that intense incidental emotional states are accompanied by high levels of autonomic arousal, which is known to impair working memory capacity (Darke, 1988a; Humphreys & Revelle, 1984). This decrement in processing capacity has a variety of consequences that could be detrimental to sound reasoning. For example, it took longer for anxious participants to verify the validity of logical inferences (Darke, 1988b), to select an option without considering other alternatives (Keinan, 1987), and to commit more errors in geometric and semantic analogical problems (Keinan, 1987). This suggests that incidental emotional states play a role in our reasoning processes, which may be related to “C” (i.e., integral emotional response).

Additionally, depressed moods have been found to decrease the reliance on general knowledge structures such as scripts (Bless et al., 1996) and to influence human behaviors and decision-making (Forgas, 1998; Fiedler, 1988). Therefore, intense emotional states, such as anxiety or depression, appear to produce deficits in people’s reasoning abilities.

One possible explanation is that sad moods signal to the individual that the situation is problematic and therefore requires a more vigilant form of processing (Schwarz, 2002). States of anger and disgust seem to decrease the depth of processing and increase the reliance on stereotyping and other heuristic cues, apparently because these states trigger a sense of certainty (Tiedens & Linton, 2001). More intense states of sadness, such as chronic depression, seem to interfere with reasoning and effortful processing (Conway & Giannopoulos, 1993). Incidental emotional states sometimes influence people’s belief accuracy, which makes sense to us because a basic requirement of logical rationality is an accuracy of perceptions and beliefs, as shown in other studies (e.g., Alloy & Abramson, 1979; Keller et al., 2002; Lee, Bumgarner, Widner, & Luo, 2007; Lee, Jussim, & McCauley, 1995; Lerner & Keltner, 2001).

All the above information may suggest that incidental emotional states explicitly and implicitly could relate to integral emotional responses (i.e., “C” in the A-B-C model). More specifically, the activating event (A) triggers an emotion, and consequently, one may become sad, anxious or depressed (which may lead to certain outcomes—i.e., (C)) if he or she has an irrational view about himself or herself and very little faith in his/her own capability (B). On the other hand, one may become less depressed if he or she has a realistic view about him/herself. Based on the literature reviewed above, incidental emotional states could play important roles in the outcome of people’s reasoning processes and belief accuracy (i.e., integral emotional responses). Therefore, the current study is set to investigate the relationship between incidental and integral emotional states that may play a meditating role in the A-B-C model. Specifically as two specific objectives, two research questions are to be addressed:

1. Do incidental emotional states relate to ‘C’ (integral emotional responses) based on the A-B-C model?

2. How might incidental emotional states play a mediating role in the relationship between ‘A’ and ‘C’?





In this study, there were originally a total of 530 participants, college students from Capital Normal University in Beijing. Thirty participants either did not follow instructions accurately or did not finish surveys. Their data were deemed not useful. They were dropped from analysis. In the end, there were 500 participants whose data were deemed acceptable.

All the participants were non-psychology majors. They were primarily female (66%), with the ages ranging from 17 to 24 (M =20.46, SD =1.80), and male (34%), with ages ranging from 18 to 24 (M =20.66, SD =1.78). The sample consisted of primarily undergraduate students with first-year students being the largest group (42%), followed by sophomores (35%), and seniors (23%).



Survey Procedures. A group of eight university staff members as research assistants were recruited to conduct the survey study. Intensive training sessions were provided to all of these assistants to ensure proper and consistent procedures for data collection. A set of materials including “measures of emotion,” “measure of stress,” and other demographic questions were shown to each assistant who went to various classrooms where college students completed the surveys. Each assistant first obtained permissions from instructors of classes before participants started their surveys.

All participants were informed that this study was about emotion, stress and health. They were also informed that they had the right not to answer any questions if they chose to. Then they were asked to read the instructions carefully and also were asked not to talk with each other. They were told that their identity (e.g., names) should not be put anywhere on the survey materials. When participants were finished with survey materials, they were thanked for their time and efforts and also briefed about the study of emotion, health and stress.

Measures of Emotion. Two major affect measures were adopted in the present study, namely: (a) Incidental Affect Scale (ICAS), and Integral Affect Scale (ITAS). A separate study was first conducted to establish the reliability and validity of these measures (Li, 2009). The two measures were found to have satisfactory discriminant and convergent validity. More specifically, with regard to the validity of the measures here, the correlations between the measures (Incidental Affect Scale–ICAS, and Integral Affect Scale– ITAS) here and other conceptually-related criteria measures were above .33 and .35, which is not too high but reasonably acceptable. More information about validity is available elsewhere (Li, 2009). Their reliabilities were also satisfactory (Cronbach alpha ranged from .88 to .93.)

(a)    ICAS is a 14-item measure developed to assess the incidental emotional states (Li, 2009). Respondents were asked to indicate whether their emotion often appeared with small things or by no reason using a 4-point Likert-type scale. The content of the items was positive and negative incidental affects.

(b)   ITAS is a 15-item measure developed to assess the integral emotional responses (Li, 2009), which is ‘C’ (Consequence) in A-B-C model. It measured integral emotion on 4-point Likert-type scale. The items described present emotions with something or somebody. The content of the items included positive and negative integral affects.

Measure of Stress. The College Stress Scale (CSS) was adopted to measure both the daily hassles and negative life events, which represent ‘A’ (Activating event) on the A-B-C model. CSS is a self-reported screening test which was originally developed for detecting college stressors among respondents in the colleges (Li, 2002). It consisted of 30 items related to three different components: personal hassles, academic hassles, and negative life events. The CSS possessed satisfactory discriminant and convergent validity, as well as satisfactory reliability (Cronbach alpha ranged from .76 to .89, Li, 2002). Respondents were asked to indicate levels of their stressors on a 4-point Likert-type scale.



The results are reported based on our two research questions. First, do incidental emotional states relate to ‘C’ (integral emotional responses) based on the A-B-C model? Second, how might incidental emotional states play a mediating role in the relationship between ‘A’ and ‘C’? Various statistical tests (e.g., T-Tests, Correlation Analyses and Regression Analyses) were performed to address our research questions.


Incidental emotional states in relation to integral emotional responses

To examine whether incidental emotional states relate to ‘C’ (integral emotional responses) based on the A-B-C model, we conducted: a) a comparison between occurrences of incidental emotional states and stress; and b) a correlation analysis of incidental emotional states with integral emotional responses. First, we found that positive incidental emotional states (M = 3.08) and negative incidental emotional states (M = 1.97) were statistically different from stress (M = 1.88), t(499) =24.79, p < .001, d = .48, and t(499) =28.43, p < .001, d =.06. In other words, the incidental emotional states occurred more often than stress. Positive incidental emotional states (d = .48 ) seemed to account more for this effect size than negative incidental emotional states (d =.06).

T-test was used to examine our hypotheses, which was statistically acceptable and was also widely used in other studies (see Boey, 1998; Boey & Chiu, 1998; Lam & Boey, 2005). It also had several advantages. First, it helped us discern the statistical difference between positive and negative incidental emotional stress. Second, we could analyze the degree to which positive and negative emotional stress affected irrational beliefs. In other words, it helped us better understand regression analysis with regard to incidental emotional states (Table 1 to be reported later). In an ideal situation, structural regression analysis could have been used. It was not used due to a small sample in this study.

We also found that there was a significant relationship, r = .19, p < .001, two-tailed, between incidental emotional states and integral emotional response. This was primarily due to negative incidental emotional states, r = .39, p < .001, two-tailed, not due to positive incidental emotional states, r = .02, ns. In other words, the total incidental emotional states and the negative incidental emotional states were significantly associated with integral emotional responses, but the positive incidental emotional states were not associated with integral emotional responses. In brief, in relation to our first research question, incidental emotional states were found to relate to ‘Cs’ (integral emotional responses).


Mediating Effects of Incidental Emotional States

To examine the second research question of how incidental emotional states could mediate the relationship between ‘A’ and ‘C’, we performed a series of regression and correlation analyses. Instead of the examination of moderation effect, our focus was on the mediating variable based on prior research (see Baron & Kenny, 1986). As seen in Table 1, the direct effect of incidental emotional states was confirmed in terms of integral emotional responses (Beta =.19). Moreover, incidental emotional states were further found to mediate the adverse impact of stress on integral emotional responses. In other words, stress and incidental emotional states produced a joint effect on integral emotion responses (Beta =.22).


Table 1. Mediating Effects of Incidental Emotional States via Multiple Regression


Integral Emotion






Stress (S)

Incidental Emotional States (IE)

S × IE
















**p<.01  ***p<.000



We further compared the differences between correlations of incidental emotional states and integral emotional responses under high and low stress conditions. As shown in Table 2, the correlation between incidental emotional states and integral emotional responses under a high stress condition was significantly higher than the correlation between incidental emotional states and integral emotional responses under a low stress condition. These findings suggested that incidental emotional states tended to weaken or strengthen the relationship between stress and integral emotional responses. High incidental emotional states could strengthen the impact of stress on integral emotional responses, whereas low incidental emotional states could weaken the impact of stress on integral emotional responses. In other words, there might be two variables which predicted the integral emotional responses. One variable is stress; another one is incidental emotional states.


Table 2. Correlation of Incidental Emotional States and Integral Emotional Responses under Low and High Stress Conditions



Incidental Emotional States



Low Stress

High Stress

Integral Emotional Responses




* p <.05  ** p < .01

Note. Low stress and high stress were defined based on the mid-value 2.5. If the mean score of an individual has more than 2.5, it is high stress; if it is less than 2.5, it is low stress.



Discussion and conclusions


The findings above addressed two questions as two research objectives. First, we found that incidental emotional states were related to ‘C’ (integral emotional responses). Second, we found that incidental emotional states played a mediating role in the relationship between ‘A’ and ‘C’.

Regarding the first objective, incidental emotional states were found to occur more often than stress. According to Lazarus (1999), stress should be a sub-topic of emotion (also Selye 1991). Thus, the activating event in the A-B-C model may be not only the stressful events, but also incidental emotional states (e.g., Beck, 1979; Ellis, 1977, 1995, 2006; Lazarus & Smith, 1988, Lazarus, 1999; Schwarz, 1990, 2002; Schwarz et al, 1991; Schwarz & Clore, 1996).

Also, in support of our second research objective, stress and incidental emotional states produced a joint effect on integral emotion responses, and incidental emotional states mediated the relationship between A and C. According to Ellis (1977, 1995, 1999), it is not a stressful event, but an irrational belief that causes emotional and behavioral disturbances. However, based on Schwarz and Clore (Schwarz & Clore, 1983; Schwarz & Clore, 1996), feelings that arise incidentally from the person’s mood state are interpreted through some thinking rules. It is this thinking that includes some emotional components (also see Corey 2008). The mediating effect of incidental emotional states indeed opened a new insight to the A-B-C model.

Regarding limitations in this study, three cautionary notes are in order here. First, theoretically, although this study successfully documented the mediating effects of incidental emotional states on integral emotional response, there is insufficient evidence of the nature of the mechanisms that underlie the effects of incidental emotional state. Second, this study could not determine whether incidental emotional states are long-term influential or not. Though theoretically incidental emotional states are long-term influential, the study we performed was cross-sectional rather than longitudinal. A future study is also needed to differentiate between incidental emotional states and integral emotional responses. Third, we did not obtain data to demonstrate higher validity of our measures. Greater validity is a concern with this study. Though there was a great internal consistency and reliability, future studies will be needed to examine the validity of the measures in this survey study.

In spite of limitations above, implications are worth mentioning. First, our research has made a theoretical contribution to REBT (Ellis (1995). Three main irrational demands or arrogant “musturbatory” ideas that people use to disturb themselves are: (1) I absolutely must perform well at important tasks or else I am an inadequate, worthless person! (2) You (other people) definitely must treat me fairly and kindly or you are no damn good! (3) The conditions under which I live must almost always be comfortable and enjoyable, or else my life is pretty rotten! When we take the incidental emotional states into account, the situation would be different where enduring or pre-existing emotions (e.g., depression or anxiety) may mediate this kind of irrational attribution process (also see Lee & Seligman, 1997; Petty et al., 2003; Seligman, 1998).

Further, the findings of the current research have scientifically and empirically extended prior work on the A-B-C model. Previous research on the A-B-C model has shown that people’s beliefs or thoughts can influence their emotion and behavior either rationally or irrationally. The present study extends this line of research by demonstrating that incidental emotional states could be related to the A-B-C model and could play a role in the relationship between “A” and “C.”

In conclusion, based on Ellis’s A-B-C model, the findings in our present study have shown that: a) incidental emotional states were found to relate to ‘C’ (integral emotional responses); and b) incidental emotional states played a mediating role in the relationship between ‘A’ and ‘C’. We are aware that it is impossible to clearly separate people’s beliefs or thoughts from their incidental emotional states, but beliefs and/or thoughts are the interpretation of people’s incidental emotional states in a way. While this research has several limitations as discussed above, it also has important theoretical and practical implications.




Thanks are extended to Editor Aurora Szentagotai, several reviewers, and such colleagues

as Jon Elhai, Zack Jenkins, Deann Hawkins, Victoria Csomos and Chad Paben for

offering us helpful suggestions and criticism




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