Describing People as Particles Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

Infomercialist and pop psychologist Barbara De Angelis puts it this way: “Love is a force more formidable than any other.” Whether you agree with her or not, De Angelis is doing something we do all the time—she is using the language of physics to describe social phenomena.

“I was irresistibly attracted to him”; “You can’t force me”; “We recognize the force of public opinion”; “I’m repelled by these policies.” We can’t measure any of these “social forces” in the way that we can measure gravity or magnetic force. But not only has physics-based thinking entered our language, it is also at the heart of many of our most important models of social behavior, from economics to psychology. The question is, do we want it there?

Interacting particles: While crowd behavior can often be described using equilibrium models of gases, other social behaviors cannot.Matthias Clamer/Getty Images

It might seem unlikely, even insulting, to suggest that people can be regarded as little magnets or particles dancing to unseen forces. But the danger is not so much that “social physics” is dehumanizing. Rather, it comes if we do not use the right physics in thinking about society.

Physicists have learned that natural systems can’t always be described by classical, equilibrium models in which everything reaches a steady, stable state. Similarly, social modelers must beware of turning society into a deterministic Newtonian machine by applying inappropriate physical models that assume society has only one way of working properly. Society rarely finds equilibrium states, after all. Social physics needs to reflect that very human trait: The capacity to surprise.

Both the attraction and the pitfalls of a physics of society are illustrated in economics. Adam Smith never actually used the term “market forces,” but the analogy was clearly in his mind. Noting how market prices seem to be drawn to some “natural” value, he compared this to the effect of gravity that Isaac Newton had explained as an invisible force a century earlier. Smith also said in his seminal Wealth of Nations that an “invisible hand” maintains equilibrium in the economy.

Smith was not alone in following Newton. Newtonian clockwork mechanics were, at the time, regarded as the model to which all understanding of nature should aspire, perhaps even including the mechanics of the human body and of society. In a poem extolling the

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