Want to understand human behavior? Study physics.
I had a crush on my high school physics teacher. His class was not my strong suit. You could say I was distracted, but the reality was that even at sixteen, I was wired to think in stories, not numbers.
I haven’t given much conscious thought to physics in quite a while, but this week the subject was top of my mind for me as I helped my kids with their schoolwork. The topic: force. As a psychologist, I usually don’t give a second thought to the science of matter, motion, and energy when making clinical case conceptualizations. In grad school, I studied the likes of Winnicott, Klein, Bowlby, Fonagy, and Freud—not Newton. But, as I watched my tots macgyver a contraption for their science experiment, I realized that physics is at play in the psychology of our lives every day.
There's a dual nature to the "pushes" we constantly encounter. We live with an internal drive and confront external nudges every day.
The inside drive.
Pushing things can be exhausting, for sure. Lots of us live under a heavy load. We carry significant emotional, intellectual, physical, and relational weight. Who and what are you pushing right now? Where? To what end? Maybe you’re trying to drive forward a project. Perhaps you’re trying to motivate, convince, or cajole a colleague, child, partner, or friend. Maybe the person you’re pushing is YOU. Whatever your load, handle it with care. To avoid injury, make sure it’s not too heavy. Position it strategically, with appropriate support.
The external nudge (shove?)
We all need people who will push us and see our potential. These are the caring, trusted voices that nudge us out of our comfort zone. Who shakes you out of complacency? Surround yourself with people who challenge you compassionately. Beware of the people who drive you into the ground. It’s not okay for someone to manipulate or to extract things from you solely for their personal gain. If you’re pressured into something you know isn’t right for you, step back and keep your distance.
Has anyone ever tried to drag you along against your will? It’s not fun. It’s also miserable trying to tow someone in a direction they don’t want to go. Still, there’s something very positive about “pull” in our lives. Great things happen when there’s something magnetic attracting us to an inspired place. What dreams are you chasing? What has you captured? Captivated? Curious? Do a gut check to make sure that you’re in pursuit, not just running away from something aimlessly.
If you’re trying to change behavior, friction can keep you in check or hold you back. Leverage it wisely. Think of a goal that’s currently front and center for you. What gets in your way from doing The Thing? To reduce friction, consider, “What can I do to make this quicker and more convenient for myself?” When your willpower wanes, friction makes you more likely to make excuses and get off track. When pursuing a goal, do what you can to make things easy. You’ll be less likely to give up or give in. Want to run in the mornings? Set out your clothes the night before. Trying to eat more veggies? Have them chopped and ready for you when you pull open the fridge.
Next, think about the behaviors you want to stop or reduce. To succeed, use your agency. Be the architect of your environment. How can you make something you don’t want to do more difficult for yourself? Create more steps. Build in distance. Force a delay. Move something farther away. Lock it up. If you can, remove it physically. Make the action you’re trying to extinguish cost more time and energy. Humans are sloths, so use laziness to your advantage.
Momentum is a gift, provided it’s sending you in the right direction. Slow starts can be discouraging. We don’t always get immediate hits of positive reinforcement right away when we start a something new venture. The downstream impact of our choices is often delayed. Keep going. Trust. There’s something waiting for you on the other side of hard work. Momentum builds over time, but we often can’t predict how long it will take for things to pick up speed. When they finally do, you’ll be glad you stuck with it every time you asked, “Why on earth am I doing this to myself?!” You’re doing it for yourself. Keep going.
Humans are wired to maintain the status quo and instinctively resist change. We gravitate to what we know, not what’s necessarily healthy or best for us. Don’t let your innate preference for certainty and predictability rob you of untapped potential. “Familiarity” is not synonymous with “safety.” Sometimes the riskiest option is choosing to remain in our current situation.
It’s hard to start doing something new. It can be equally challenging to stop automatic habits. We all have ways of acting that follow deep grooves in our brains. As you work to shift long-standing patterns, keep in mind that the greater the mass of something, the greater its inertia. Be patient and have self-compassion as you pursue change.
If we want to understand psychology, it helps to study physics. This insight was lost on me as starry-eyed high school sophomore, but I’m glad I get it today. Behavior is gravity. It’s everywhere, always. Where are your choices taking you? If you don’t like the direction you’re going, change it. Leverage force and friction to overcome inertia. Be strategic, consistent, and patient. Momentum will build.
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