You’re pissing me off. I haven’t said anything, but frankly it’s been going on quite a while. And you have finally said the last goddamn thing I am going to take from you. I slam down my cup of coffee and I snap at you.
And, who knew? Turns out you were also getting pissed at me. So when you come back at me, you come back hard. Now I’m twice as pissed. I yell at you. You slit your eyes and cut me down.
You and I are a charged, oscillating system.
Put differently, we’re both pendulums. Each of us started this conversation pulled way over to one side, charged with potential energy. You add the final critical-mass electron, and I explode out. Now, the innate neural physics that pushes us around, sucks us hard back towards the middle. But, we both overshoot. Now we are amplifying one another, taking turns lashing out and reacting, charging each other up with anger. The swings get wider and wider. If we swing too wide, our relationship might break.
I wish I explained pendulums better
I see pendulums everywhere. And if there is one thing that I’ve learned about pendulums over the last two decades of seeing them everywhere, it is that I am terrible at explaining to other humans why they are a big deal. But they totally are. Everything breathing, and humans in particular, are composed of swinging forces – ideological, physical, neural, emotional – that are trying to reach equilibrium. Zoom out, and you get this giant human fractal of interference patterns, with everything dampening or charging up everything else. It’s lovely and super geeky, and damn it, why don’t we talk more about pendulums.
Not literal pendulums, obviously, but pendulum behavior: oscillation and feedback loops in social systems. (Note: this article is about Social Systems Theory, a field which may or may not exist. My last article about it is here.)
Engineering types refer to this mechanic as a “control system.” They usually start with the metaphor of a thermostat. A thermostat contains a goal state: keep the room at 72 degrees. It can be good or lousy at that job. A lousy one might look up every half an hour and say “Oh, hey, it’s only 60 degrees in here, let me help.” It cranks the heat on and then checks out for a while thinking about whatever it is that lightly personified thermostats think about. In half an hour, it checks again, and says: “Who, dude, how did it get to be 90 degrees in here?” And turns on the AC. Now you’re freezing. Back and forth, in big overcompensating swings.
In other words, this control system can’t maintain its goal state, in this case because it doesn’t sample its environment often enough. An equally bad thermostat might sample enough, but its corrective mechanism is the wrong size for the job (“Oh gosh, it’s cold in here, let me go turn on the flamethrower.”)
Human systems do this: oscillate, and try to converge. But it doesn’t work out as simply as a mechanical control system, because human oscillations can be in different energy states.
You can charge pendulums.
Charged pendulums swing farther, faster, every time they swing.
All kinds of things can build charge in humans. For example: being trapped between two social networks which both matter to you, but which each want you to do opposite things. In social network theory, you would be referred to as a “bridge” between densely connected groups; in this case, say, the one who raised you, who demand you condemn gay people; and the one with a lot of gay people who you like a lot. If this goes on long enough, you might blow up at one or both of them; alternately, you swallow it for a few decades, it eats you alive and eventually kills you. Either way, the conflict builds a charge, and it has to go somewhere.
Another gold standard charge-builder: raise a kid to think sex is evil, and watch the rubber band draw back over 7 years of raging hormones. Just Add College, and you’ve got a promiscuity slingshot. Depriving someone of basic human needs builds charge. Poverty & loneliness do it. Shame does it. Fear does it.
You can manipulate pendulums.
By which I mean, you can manipulate people. Groups of people, even better. When groups get into a shared mindset, we combine into a giant Voltron of collective force.
Take the #YesAllWomen phenomenon. Which, if you haven’t been watching it, is amazing, and not just because “Yay, feminism!” (though also that). Hundreds of thousands of women who didn’t dare tell anyone how scared they are, and decided as one organism to compile their latent static charge into one giant mega-ball of pissed-off electricity. Then, they (ok, we) fed off each other. We read each other’s tweets and got so pissed that, damn it, we had to add our own. Providing charge for the next person. We crossed the streams, a la Ghostbusters.
YesAllWomen magnified that community’s energy, to build enough escape velocity, to break past the disincentive to speak. This is what social change is made of. It’s literally how revolutions start. It’s also how stuck conversations finally move again, for better or for worse. Riling up collectives enough that they’ll talk about something difficult, stretches the Overton Window; meaning, it changes the range of things that polite society will permit people to say out loud. Charging pendulums is my favorite systems dynamic.
YesAllWomen was emergent, but plenty of other charge manipulations aren’t. Top-down rhetoric* is great at engineering a movement out of latent energy (usually fear). Take for example Hitler, or your least favorite political party, or also, your most favorite political party. That’s part of what we hire politicians to do: charge us up enough to make us act as one, even when it’s not in our individual best interest.
Manipulating systems on purpose – say, rallying a country to war – doesn’t just change that group, or that moment. It sets the system oscillating for a long time. You might win the war, but your enemy holds a hard grudge (a charge), and plans, conspires, and gains allies. A generation later there is retaliation, to which you later retaliate, because pendulums.
*Lateral rhetoric (rumor) works too: it creates violent, idiotic mobs.
You can let pendulums wind down.
The YesAllWomen created a huge initial charge, but it’s slowly losing momentum. Unlike mechanical control systems, which just keep doing the same thing forever, pendulums are always trying to approach a state of rest. If no energy goes in, they swing in smaller and smaller arcs until they just sit there pointing down. Sometimes that’s annoying, because it happens instead of interesting change. But sometimes it’s great, like when you’re fighting with your friend. Over the next half hour, you’ll both yell at each other a little bit less, calm down a little more, start to communicate, and over several dozen exchanges you’ll come to terms.
You can actively dampen pendulums.
Apply a little resistance on each swing, and you’ll converge faster on the middle. Dampening pendulums is my other, more favorite systems dynamic. Big fan.
When human pendulums are charged, dramatic and reactive, things get noisy, dumb and mean. We spend months rolling our eyes at ridiculous news headlines that intentionally misinterpret everything so they can shout more. Or, alternately, we intentionally misinterpret everything so we ourselves can shout at somebody.
When we dampen the pendulum, though, things get interesting. The less we swing, the faster we converge, and the fewer licks it takes to get to the tootsie roll center of public discourse! Then we can get on to the next interesting problem! Sentimentality aside, it’s just plain better geekonomics.
This is why I have such a thing about information moving. Withholding important information almost always charges pendulums. I should have talked to you about why I was getting mad, sooner. You should have talked to me. We didn’t. It would have been uncomfortable and maybe scary, but it would have saved a hell of a lot of time, and we would be out watching Witching and Bitching right now instead of actually doing it.
That’s what conflict mediation is: an oscillation dampener. Subduing our reactivity so that we can exchange real information. That’s what you’re doing when you go take a walk and think before you slam down your coffee cup and yell at a person, or at the entire internet.
Instinctively, we don’t want to dampen them.
We don’t experience pendulums from the outside, because they all pull at our heads with an almost literal gravitational force. We experience them from the inside, like kids riding a swing. Remember? You get excited! You want to get more excited, so you kick! You don’t want to slow down, you want to go up! But now your mom calls you and it’s time to go home. Now you have to drag your feet on the gravel. It’s loud and jerky. It fights your momentum, it pulls at your body, makes you dizzy. The disappointment as you let go of the exhilaration of riding the high. Dragging your feet doesn’t feel right.
We experience pendulums like this. You get excited, or mad! It feels like things! Are happening! And you probably should do something about it right now. Dampening that energy feels unnatural, because it is. We are wired to think with our limbic systems first, our brains second. Check out this interesting Radiolab podcast on how the brain prioritizes information. The relevant bit goes from 3:40 – 6:30 (but all of it is awesome).*
Anything that raises your stress response, gets cognitive priority. You don’t get a choice about that, it’s the bargain your lizard brain made when it reluctantly agreed to wrap itself in your cerebral cortex. In the contract, it says: think all you want, buddy, but when we see a threat, lizard brain is calls the shots. You sit there contemplating the nature of the bear, and we get eaten, bucko.
Consciously exerting force to dampen a pendulum doesn’t feel right, because your nature wants you not to do it. You’re putting your precious wattage into pushing against your animal instincts and the physics of being human. It sucks a little. It doesn’t happen by accident. This is an act of free will, so we only do it when we would rather get somewhere, than ride the swing.
*You can also read about these two separate parts of human cognition, in Daniel Bernoulli’s Thinking Fast and Slow.
Pendulums cause trouble when they are invisible.
Pendulums can be so huge that humans can’t see them. The longer the string, the slower the pendulum, the wider its sweeps. Sometimes the string is so long, it takes centuries to complete one sweep – and to our eyes, it looks like nothing is happening. Huge masses of people – genders, races, political movements, religious movements – are constantly building up charges of fury and fear, lashing out, and pushing their counterpart into the swing. Big, lengthy cycles of dominance and retaliation. Not for nothin’, but: I wonder what we could do to dampen some of those big swings. Or, like: initiate fewer of them. Just throwing that out there.
Pendulums can also be invisible because they’re too close to see. And, speaking of which…
Look. I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’ve been carrying this big baseline charge around. I let my swing pull back too far, with you, for too long. So I lost my shit and treated you badly. I could have handled it better. I apologize. I’ll try harder to drag my feet.
Addendum: Pendulums are beautiful.
It isn’t just social physics. It’s art. It’s God’s kaleidoscope. Here is an ugly site featuring a pendulum mash-up that for some reason just dazzles me. I didn’t adjust the timing – they’re perfectly serendipitous. The lowest pendulum is the same as the music. Mesmerizing. These are the real, deep mechanics of the world. We’re made by them, stuck in them. We spend our lives pushing and pulling on them. So pretty.
Note: My husband, who is usually right about things, reminds me that physics metaphors for social behavior have a down side. They can encourage people to see the world in a mechanistic, reductionist way. Meaning, that if you add up all the rules, the system is just a sum of its parts, and everything is predictable. With humans, nothing is further from the truth. It’s emergent and complicated. That’s why it’s awesome.