Friday, April 1, 2011
Resolving Conflicts With Newtonian Mechanics
The 2005 film, Crash, won the “Best Picture” award at the Oscars, and is one of the best dramas I have ever seen. The movie follows several characters that are involved in negative interactions fuelled by racial differences and hate.
Watching these intense situations play out from a distance is thought-provoking and highly entertaining. However, experiencing such conflicts first-hand is often very stressful. One-on-one confrontations between strangers, colleagues, friends, and, worst of all, family members, can be extremely detrimental to one’s personal equilibrium.
A person is like a particle moving along through space – if left to one’s own devices, one will continue along pleasantly, unaffected. This is predicted by Newton’s first law of motion, which says that an object in motion will only change velocity if a non-zero net external force acts on it. One way to think of Newton’s first law is that life would be dull if we just kept to ourselves. Going through life with constant velocity is no fun; human contact makes for a far more interesting journey.
One of the characters in Crash goes so far as to suggest that people seek out conflicts because they are bored or lonely – as though colliding into one another is a mechanism that people use to confirm they are still alive.
A life that is completely devoid of conflict is boring. On the other hand, a life that is filled with destructive interactions is too stressful.
Like particles floating in the air, or cars driving on the road, people moving through life will inevitably collide with one another. Usually, these collisions are positive, like a friendly hello from a neighbour. Sometimes, however, people collide in an explosive manner, like when colleagues disrespect one another.
Newton’s third law predicts that two particles in contact with one another will exert equal and opposite forces on one another. An extension of this law is known as the conservation of linear momentum, which may be used to predict the final state of colliding bodies given their initial states. I see an elegant parallel between colliding particles and clashing personalities. Can we learn from these mechanics principles in order to resolve our interpersonal conflicts more harmoniously? Let us see.
First of all, what is momentum? It is defined as the product of mass and velocity. Heavier, faster-moving objects have more momentum than lighter, slower-moving ones. For this reason, if two football players collide at equal speeds, the heavier one will “win” the collision.
I was once sitting at the back of a city bus that was stopped at a red light, when I felt a slight vibration and a loud BANG. It turned out that a car had slid into the rear of the bus. The bus, having a much larger mass than the car, sustained barely a scratch. The poor Toyota Yaris had transformed into an accordion.
In an interpersonal conflict, each person has an analogous velocity and mass. Each “body” has a velocity they bring to the collision – it is their point of view. The mass of each body is then how strongly they feel about the issue at hand. If two people have colliding views and feel very strongly about them, you can expect to see real fireworks. Conversely, when people ‘agree to disagree’, their masses, and corresponding momentum vectors are small. In such cases, the resulting collisions are negligible; those involved in the confrontation deem the argument to be not worth the trouble. As they say, one should pick one’s battles.
Does this mean that voicing strong contradictory opinions must result in a destructive impact? Actually, there is one more important aspect about collisions to consider: when two particles with high momentum collide, they need not sustain damage as a result of the collision.
There are two kinds of collisions. The kinds of collisions that we see most typically in life are inelastic in nature. Here, the total kinetic energy of the bodies involved is not conserved. Much of the energy goes into deforming the bodies, like the aforementioned Yaris. When two people confront one another in a disrespectful manner, it is simply an inelastic collision of personalities. Rather than resolving the conflict, the energy deforms one or both spirits involved. Usually, the person with less momentum going into the confrontation gets flattened by the other. If both people have significant momentum, and are disrespectful to one another, both will sustain damage. It turns out that ‘heated’ debates are appropriately named, as heat loss signifies a loss in energy.
The other kind of collision is elastic. Think of two balls in billiards that smash into one another. They are certainly affected by the collision, yet they sustain no damage. The bodies learn from one another, and waste no energy hurting the other’s feelings. We can learn much from these colliding objects. If we keep our discourse respectful, we come out of it ahead. Our total momentum is conserved, and our energy is too.
There are so many things that can fuel a confrontation. Much of the time, they are a direct result of miscommunication or a false assumption by one or both parties involved. Sometimes they are the result of a toxic situation, like the racism present in Crash. Legitimate arguments can be political in nature – the result of different beliefs or perspectives. They can be socio-economic as well, stemming from an imbalance of wealth or natural resources.
Many collisions in life are unavoidable. If you find yourself involved in a high momentum collision, remember that the nature of the collision is not predetermined. Unlike inanimate objects that collide, people get to choose how these intense moments will play out. Let us collide elastically, with mutual respect. We will conserve our energy for more important things, like enjoying life.
Newtonian mechanics teaches us how bodies move and interact with one another. Social situations are less predictable and actually more complex than problems involving physics. Yet, within the simplicity of two colliding bodies, there exists a lesson that will help us resolve our real life differences respectfully.