On the Significance of Emotions in System Theory

In my opinion, the system-theoretical understanding of psychological and social processes that presently prevails at least in the German-speaking world is too strongly influenced by the concepts of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann and requires a thorough revision and clarification in several respects. Particularly with regard to the significance of emotions and their interactions with thinking and acting, current concepts – such as Rosemarie Welter-Enderlin’s “emotional framing”¹ or Fritz Simon’s understanding of emotions as “symbolically generalized communication media”² – seem to be too imprecise to be of great practical or theoretical use. Far too little attention is generally paid to the energetic-dynamic role of emotions. Even the informative new book by Elisabeth Wagner and Ulrike Russinger on emotion-centered systemic psychotherapy fails to provide sufficient clarification in this respect.³

As I explained in more detail several years ago in my article “A Blind Spot in Niklas Luhmann?...”⁴, Luhmann’s assertion that, because emotions belong to the psychological realm, they are not relevant in sociology, apart from the fact that they sometimes act as disturbing and alarming factors⁵, is unsatisfactory. In my view, emotions play, on the contrary, a central role in the social field, too. Luhmann pays surprisingly little attention to the fact that collective emotions, stirred up by social conflicts and tensions, function again and again as the decisive motors and energy suppliers that propel the dynamics of microsocial and macrosocial processes of all kinds. Family feuds, mass panic or mass enthusiasm, protest movements, or revolutions provide spectacular examples of this. Also long-term social processes such as the decades-long gradual change in the role of women in society are ultimately driven by emotional energies. Furthermore, (as Simon postulates) emotions are indispensable as media of communication – an eminently social phenomenon. In my opinion, it is even true that information without emotion (or “emotional framing”) remains practically ineffective, i.e., because it is either noticed nor integrated into our thinking. And last but not least, value systems linked to  positive or negative emotions also play a crucial role, both in the psychological and in the social sphere, as indispendable  regulators of behaviour and reducers of complexity.

Ten central theses on the interaction of emotion and cognition

The following are, very briefly summarized, the ten most important theses on the interaction of emotion and cognition which, in my opinion, should be systematically incorporated into the existing theories of mental and social systems:

  1. Emotion and cognition interact in a circular way in all mental and social processes. Specific cognitions trigger specific emotions, and specific emotions influence cognition through their specific switching and filtering effects.
  2. Emotions are comprehensive, evolutionarily rooted psychosomatic moods of varying duration, intensity and proximity to consciousness. They are coupled with specific energies (or energy-consumption patterns) with the basic tendency of moving  “away from” or “toward” certain cognitive objects.
  3. Collective emotions are emotions shared by a majority or minority of members of a collective of any size. Collective emotional energies can, if directed in the same direction, have enormous social effects.
  4. Cognitions (such as perception, attention, memory, combinatory thinking, and decision-making) are ultimately based on sensory distinctions, or distinctions of distinctions in the sense of Spencer-Brown.⁶
  5. Simultaneously experienced emotions, cognitions, and behaviors are stored in memory as integrated feeling-thinking-behaving programs (FTB programs), which control future behavior in similar situations.
  6. FTB programs of various sizes form the basic “building blocks” of the psyche. The sum of FTB programs result in personality-specific, group-specific and culture-specific affective-cognitive views of the world (“Eigenworlds”).
  7. Both individual FTB programs and individual or collective affective-cognitive worldviews correspond to typical systems in the system-theoretical sense, whose equilibration (homoeostasis) or transformation (morphogenesis) is regulated by a multitude of positive and negative feedback mechanisms.
  8. Cognitions determine the structure and emotions determine the dynamics of mental and social systems.
  9. In FTB systems of any dimension, critically rising emotion-energetic tensions can cause a sudden nonlinear shift (a bifurcation) into another global pattern of feeling, thinking, and behaving (for example, from a “logic of peace” to a “logic of war,” from an everyday logic to a logic of fear or anger, or also, in persons with a specific disposition, to a “psychotic logic.”
  10. The -mostly circular -  interactions between emotion and cognition are fractally structured; they are self-similar in mental and social systems of any dimension.

All these theses are based on the concept of affect logic. To explain this in more detail here would go far too far; for that, I refer to my books on this topic. I would like to briefly point out, hovever, a number of advantages that a systems theory supplemented by these postulates has to offer.

Good reasons for including these ten theses into the system theory of mental and social processes
Above all, the psychodynamic and sociodynamic effects of emotions are centrally integrated into the system theory of mental and social processes according to their importance, instead of playing only an unclear and marginal role. At the same time, an equally practically and theoretically meaningful continuity is established not only between emotional and cognitive processes, but also between mental and social processes. In addition, the clear definitional distinction between emotion and cognition makes it possible to better understand both the interactions between emotion and cognition in general, and the structure of a multitude of phenomena in which both components interact in a insufficiently clarified way(such as trust/mistrust, shame, jealousy, etc.) in particular. The same applies to notions such as “institutional climate,” “mentality,” “class spirit,” and so on: In all these cases, specific positive or negative emotions are associated with a particular cognitive object (e.g., a person, an institution, a thing) to form a typical FTB program or system. The cognitions involved determine the content and structure of this system, and the switching effects of the emotions involved determine its dynamics (e.g., a defensive and avoidance behavior, or on the contrary an approaching and bonding behavior). To grasp clearly both the differences as well as the ubiquitous interactions between these two components provides new possibilities of influencing emotions and/or cognition in practice.

Another advantage of the proposed conceptualization is its economy. In fact, the described interplay of emotion and cognition corresponds to an ingenious binary code created by evolution of remarkable efficiency and economy: By combining a limited number of basic emotional states with an infinite number of cognitive objects, this code is able to generate an infinite abundance of experience-based FTB programs that control all thinking and behavior in the service of survival. This code appears even more economical if one considers also my so-called imprint hypothesis, which assumes that emotional components already play a significant structuring role in the initial construction and storage of FTB systems in memory.⁷ The so-called marker hypothesis by Antonio Damasio proposes something quite similar.⁸

Multiple practical implications

Practical implications of a systems theory complemented by these concepts are evident wherever the dynamics of mental or social systems of all kinds are at stake – for example, in conflict management, psychotherapy, crisis intervention, or mediation. The energizing effects of emotions on thought and behavior also play a central role in corporate management, advertising, or political propaganda24. This fact has been used for a long time, initially on a more intuitive basis and more recently on an increasingly sophisticated scientific basis. A current example is the scandalous Big Data analyses of Facebook information by the Anglo-American consultant Cambridge Analytics, which in all probability contributed decisively to the outcome of two extremely close ballots in 2016: the campaign for England’s withdrawal from the European Union (the “Brexit”), and in Donald Trump’s election campaign against Hillary Clinton for the American presidency.


Luc Ciompi (born 1929), Swiss psychiatrist, Schizophrenia researcher, pioneer of integrative psychiatry and founder of Affect-Logic celebrates his 90th birthday. He lets us participate in his personal, scientific and ideological reflections. It shows, that even an old age can be a fascinating time full of unexpected highs and lows.


¹ Welter-Enderlin R., Hildenbrand B. (Ed.) (1998).: Gefühle und Systeme. Die emotionale Rahmung beraterischer und therapeutischer Prozesse. Auer, Heidelberg.

² Simon F.B. (2004). Zur Systemtheorie der Emotionen. In Baeker D (Hrsg) Soziologie der Emotion. Soziale Systeme 10: 111-139. Wagner E., Russlinger F. ( 2016). Emotionsbasierte systemische Therapie. Intrapsychische Prozesse verstehen und behandeln (Emotion-based systemic therapy. Under, 2016tandin, 2016g and treatment of int-rapsychic processes) Klett- Cotta Stuttgart.

³ Ciompi L. (2004) Ein blinder Fleck bei Niklas Luhmann? Soziodyna-mische  Wirkungen von Emotionen nach dem Konzept der fraktalen Af-fektlogik. (A Blind Spot in Niklas Luhmann? Sociodynamic effects of emotions according to the concept of fractal affect logic) Soziale Systeme 10:21-49.

⁴ Luhmann N. (1995 ) Social Systems. Stanford University Press  - Luh-mann, N. ( 2012) Theory of Society, Vol. 1. Stanford University Press.

⁵ Spencer-Brown G. (1979.)Laws of form. Durron, New York.

⁶ see Ciompi, L. (1997) Die emotionalen Grundlagen des Denkens. Ent-wurf einer fraktalen Affektlogik (The Emotional Foundations of Thinking. An Outline of a Fractal Affect Logic), Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttin-gen 1997. p.. 126 ff.

⁷ Damasio A.: Descartes' error. Emotion, reason and the human brain, Grosset/Putnam, New York 1994.

⁸ Ciompi, L., Endert, E. (2011) Gefühle machen Geschichte. Die Wirkung kol-lektiver Emotionen - von Hitler bis Obama  (Feelings Make History. The Effects of Collective Emotions - from Hitler to Obma) Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen.

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  • Ciompi paradigme is very true for further extending study.

    Emotion as mental activity and congintion as consciouu activity , both are hypothetically taken as simultaneous of system processes. System theory has highly potential of consistency to unified treatise them as a key paradigme to comprehense this mechanism as dual process system. Ciompi, from his professional career as psychiarist background has payed his focus to this field.

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