Are we as free to choose as we think we are?
Scientists have long employed the laws of physics to explain the behavior of everything in nature – except humans. But in a recent book by theoretical physicist Mark Buchanan (2007), he states that we are on the verge of something akin to a quantum revolution in the social sciences, with a view of people who may be as predictable as particles.
In his book, The Social Atom, Buchanan offers a glimpse into new research that applies the principles of physics to the study of human social behavior. Just as physicists decipher the forces that govern the organization of individual atoms into different material, Buchanan says it is possible to figure out the physical laws of the human world if we view people as “social atoms” forming “social matter”. He disputes the long-held notion that individuals can do whatever they please, making prediction of their behavior impossible.
Buchanan notes that the physical properties of atoms, can serve to explain the social atom’s basic properties, and that this will help us understand how people, or in his language, social particles, interact. Buchanan states this application of physics to humans can help us explain scenarios ranging from stock market fluctuations to cults, to choice of a life long partner. His characterization of social atoms is not surprising: they tend to imitate one another, organize themselves, and let emotions influence their thinking and decision making. But Buchanan presents these old ideas in a new and unusual light. He explains that in the same way that individual microscopic atomic magnets in a chunk of iron tend to line up even in the absence of an external magnetic field, social atoms coerce their immediate neighbors into adopting opinions and behaviors similar to their own. Such social forces can eventually lead to outcomes that few individuals ever intended.
The nascent field of social physics can have an impact on our understanding of how and in what way people initiate relationships, develop similarities, and over time, may end up in marital relationships with unexpected shifts in their thinking and their behavior. And yet in my belief, herein lies the rub. Affective connections and depth emotional attachments may not line up as well behind these shifts towards similar thinking and like behavior. In such cases, increasing discontent may cause couples to struggle with cooperation, shared interests, manner of communication, and time spent together. As we better understand social physics and we look more closely at how “social matter” interacts, informed marital therapy may help to unravel the manner in which some of these forces, about which individuals were unaware, may negatively impact marital functioning.
Buchanan, Mark, The Social Atom, Bloomsbury Press, 2007