A few months back I posted some initial thoughts on the thermodynamics of societal phase change. I opened that post with the need to hit the ‘reset’ button on psychology studies world-wide. Just last week a new study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences found a bug in the fMRI brain scan data used at the heart of psychology — a bug that changes a 5% positive to a whopping problem of 70% — and affects over 40,000 journal papers. So in short, psychology is desperate for solid footing from the physical sciences and the initial thermodynamic thoughts I posted keep fruiting, so here’s more.

My initial thoughts made the connection that empathy is social entropy. Thinking about entropy from the statistical Boltzmann perspective as the log of the number of ways. I came about this conclusion from looking at the spiral v-Meme structures and Dr. Chuck’s empathy pyramid, shown again here, since modified:

Empathy pyramid v2

Earlier today Dr. Chuck made an incredible connection: “Physics is the structure, chemistry is the culture.” Although I had explained from structural/physical arguments how thermodynamics mapped to Spiral v-Memes and empathy, I needed to discuss the chemistry involved with mixing cultures and memes. Thankfully, thermodynamics is just as applicable in chemistry as physics and everything else in the universe, so here goes.

Remember from last time the definitions of thermodynamic properties I used:

Entropy (S) = Empathy

Temperature (T) = Resources

Internal Energy (U) = Value evolution

Pressure (P) = Stress to change

Density (1/v) = Population density

Gibbs Energy (G) = Potential for societal phase change

The properties are related via the equation G = U+Pv-TS, just as in the case of binary fluid mixing as defined originally by Gibbs nearly 130 years ago. Chemical mixing of fluids has many analogies to cultural mixing, just as in the case of the structure arguments. We first need to get into the entropy of fluid mixing to see what is transferable to societal phase change.

The Entropy of Fluid and Cultural Mixing

The entropy of mixing is defined in thermodynamics as the increase in total entropy observed when initially separate fluids in equilibrium mix without chemical reaction. The entropy goes up because a considerable amount of work would be required to separate the fluids again, work that you can only return a small fraction of. The entropy of mixing always leads to an entropy higher for the mixture than the pure components alone, and the maximum entropy of mixing likely occurs near an equal parts mixture:

Entropy of mixing 2

This entropy of mixing is provable directly from statistical mechanics and immediately analogous to information entropy.

From a culture standpoint, consider the wedding ritual of mixing two different colored sands together — it’s a symbolically irreversible union. The same likely applies to the mixing of cultural v-Meme stacks. Dr. Chuck has always said that one of the key things holding me back in life is my experience of other cultures and he’s right. It’s very difficult for me to empathize on a global level with so little experience.

So here’s a key rule of the chemistry of empathy — the empathy of mixing cultures is higher than any of the cultures alone. One of Dr. Chuck’s grand challenges, the riddle of how we’re able to be smarter and more empathetic together than any of us alone, is solved by this analogy from thermodynamics. Because we’re more empathetic and entropic together, in other words the more accessible ways we have to connect and solve problems.

Thankfully, even simple binary fluid mixtures have much more complexity. Just because they mix, the same as cultures, doesn’t mean they mix evenly or stay mixed under all conditions. Enter miscibility.

The miscibility of fluids and cultures

In thermodynamics, two fluids are considered miscible when mixed and form a homogenous solution in all proportions. Basically a random mixture with no precipitates, which is what ideal fluid mixtures always form. Whether fluids are miscible or not depends on the enthalpy of mixing, also known as the heat of mixing. Enthalpy (H) is equal to U + Pv. Hence if the differences in perceived societal values (U) or stress and density are too significant, and the available resources (T) drop below a critical threshold (known as the critical solution temperature), the fluids or cultures will unmix and form precipitates.

This concept of miscibility is readily observable at many levels in society. From marriages where the perceived values become too different and resources strained, or in large scale cultural mixing like we are observing with the immigrants fleeing from wars to Europe. It takes considerable resources (T) and empathy (S) to overcome the cultural drivers towards in-group/out-group formation of precipitates. But when successful, cultures will be more empathetic and better for working towards miscibility. Seperation camps are seldom a good idea.

Separation of fluids and cultures

It happens. Sometimes spontaneously due to inadequate resources driving precipitation or too many resources causing boiling of one component and not the others. When forced it’s a highly inefficient process analogous to genocide — we strive towards higher empathy, it makes us better than any of our constituents alone. Sometimes, though two fluids are so unbalanced chemically (alcohol and water are a match for the ages) that they need eachother and when in the right proportions, no degree of resources (T) or perceived need to change (U) can seperate them. They’re stuck together. These are known as azeotropes. A social example could be those that have empathy receptor deficiencies (Asbergers) with those that have empathy processing deficiencies (psychopathy).

The big opportunity

One thought that came to me when writing this post, I teach that whenever you have a gradient, whether chemical or cultural, there exists a potential to do useful work. The chemistry of culture mixing presents considerable economic potential in the form of new products, concepts, and services. To heck with border fences, try border design firms instead!

The key challenge

There are many changes in phase envelope and mixture classifications for just binary fluid mixing. This complexity increases considerably with more mixture constituents. Consider the difficulties of modeling complex cultures with high reliability and confidence! Regardless, our knowledge of fluid mixture behavior allows wonderful designs that improve humanity. It’s time we identify case studies in the psychology realm to apply our thermo-analogy models to. So far they seem to work in both the physical/structure and chemistry/cultural realms, in too many ways not to have at least some merit.

The key takeaway

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of the universe never decreases. We’ve now transferred both the physical and chemical sides of thermodynamics to social psychology. If empathy is indeed social entropy, what can that tell us about life? May’be the meaning is to increase empathy. Regardless, it’s about empathy.