Rage Against the Machine: The Case for System-Level Emotions



Although psychologists have generally conceptualized emotions in light of individual- and group- level approaches, in the current paper we propose that there are also system-level emotional events, including both system-based emotions (experienced as a direct or indirect consequence of system-level characteristics) and system-targeted emotions (reflecting evaluations that support or oppose the overarching social system). We begin by discussing how emotions are embedded in the social system and what system-level functions they serve. We draw on system justification theory to understand the reciprocal relations between emotional life and ideologies that justify or challenge social systems. We then focus on three empirical propositions concerning the dynamics of system-level emotions: (I) System-based emotions reflect one’s subjective as well as objective standing in the social order; (II) System-based emotions reflect one’s subjective appraisal of the social order; and (III) System-level emotions affect action tendencies and behaviors, including behaviors that promote system stability versus change. The investigation of system-level emotions promises to deepen our scientific understanding of the motivational dynamics of social stability and social change and to uncover the affective dimension of system justification processes. Extending the social psychological analysis of emotions to include contextual features at the level of social systems builds a much-needed bridge between emotion research in psychology and sociology.