Social isolation a thermodynamic problem?

Social isolation might be a thermodynamic problem.

The concepts of thermodynamics may be applied beyond the realm of chemistry and reveal interesting insights of an issue facing many Western societies.

As social isolation could be viewed as a a thermodynamic problem, this colloquial post will try to push the reader to view social isolation as a consequence of economical wealth and provoke an alternative viewpoint on this problem.

With a quick review of GDP per country you will realize that as of 2018 Western’s countries (West-Europe-USA) have historically never achieve so much economical wealth.For example, if we take the USA as a proxy for Western civilization, the USA had an est. of 2.27 trillion Real-GPD in 1950 compared to 17.16 trillion by 2017 (US Real GDP by Year, s.d.). This is an over 7-fold increase of wealth (!) under a century.To make sense of these numbers, let’s compare them within a larger time scale.

During the 1st and 2nd century A.D. Ancient Rome was living in a epoch which was considered among the greatest Mankind has lived throughout as quoted by Gibbon:

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.” (Gibbon, 1776–1789)

At the stage in time often referred as the early stages of the Roman Empire (or Golden age) is has been estimated that there was a per capita GDP of $2,085[1] (Temin) as of  $52’194 for the USA today, an over 25-fold increase.Sure it will be argued that the distribution of this wealth mostly fell under the hands of old men in a patriarchal society and excluded women and slaves (an argument not so different than of today). Nevertheless it is safe to assume that economical growth has improved the lives of all groups as a whole although the distribution has not been equal in proportion. This pushes us to ponder (for our purpose) the question if there is an inherent cause creating social isolation or is it a consequence of our development as a society? Media focus on social isolation increased after the creation of a Minister for loneliness within the UK was mentioned publicly (January 17, 2018). An “odd” position as one would not think social isolation as a serious issue. But it is one, which affects all age groups in one way or another as in teenagers (NSPCC, 2017) and seniors (AARP Foundation, 2017) and impacts the well-being among those afflicted by it. Insight from scientific studies on the subject matter are nevertheless underwhelming. As we dig upon the subject-matter we realize most of it is on the health consequences of isolation and less on the roots of the phenomena.

An even the results of meta-analysis studies on the health consequences result in difficult valuable insight, with an exception:

“Social isolation produces significant changes in brain structures and processes in adult social animals” (Stephanie Cacioppo, 2014 )

Since most studies are centered towards animals rather than people (acknowledging the fact that significant gaps exist between the two groups).

Nick Kanas, professor of psychiatry at the University of California can help us elucidate as on what we understand so-far :

“From all these studies, we are finding that there is not just a simple decline in psychological well-being over time…There are tremendous variations among people” (Kanas, s.d.)

Although it might be difficult to pinpoint why these headlines have struck a nerve, I would argue that we should keep a lookout on this topic as there are no signs of it moving away. I say this as I come under the observation that it might be “wealth” itself which creates such a direction as wealth is a generator of choice.

Let me explain.

The root of this observation derives from Milton Friedman’s book “Capitalism and Freedom”,  an influential book on Economics published in 1962 which makes the case that the raise of capital has been the greatest vector for political freedom. The Nobel-prize laurate understood the indissociable association between economical freedom and total freedom and argued that economical capitalism is a powerful tool for liberating the individual regardless of their ethnicity or gender. Nevertheless a subject matter which he didn’t address is a cost of this new-found liberty, social isolation. Pondering on this topic I came under the realization that the social isolation we are observing today could in part be better understood if some principles of Thermodynamics were extrapolated for this use.

Thermodynamics helps us understand the role of energy and transfer of energy within and across systems and is divided into four laws.

My focus will be on the zeroth law which deals with the concept of Temperature. Temperature is in fact a difficult concept to explain at a molecular level without using other definitions and is stated as :

“The parameter that tells us the most probable distribution of populations of molecules over the available states of a system at equilibrium” (Atkins)

So thinking about the speed/excitability of atoms within a system, Temperature can be viewed as how far atoms can reach different energy “states”.

Complemented with the definition of a Boltzmann distribution:

“As the temperature in increased, the populations migrate from lower energy levels to higher energy levels. At absolute zero, only the lowest state is occupied; at infinite temperature, all states are equally populated” (Atkins)

We get a stronger idea of what exactly is Temperature. With this it is important to keep in mind that different atoms exist in different energy levels which in turn led to different Boltzmann distributions.

This is a graph of the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution
(example of a Boltzmann distribution)


“States” thermodynamically speaking can be viewed (for our purposes) as shelves, therefore depending on the temperature population of atoms, they migrate from lower energy “shelves” to higher “shelves”. My extrapolation is regarding the thermodynamic concept of temperature and economical activity. The assumption is that a dynamic macro-economy is an economy which has strong supply/demand interactions. Wealth derives from the activity of those interactions, leading to economical growth. Debate is mostly aimed towards the importance of each element (Keynesian Economics, aggregate supply, …) and less if economical interactions leads to wealth. I believe that there are commonalities between the dynamism of an economy and Thermodynamic “heat” which then explains in part social isolation. If individuals are considered as atoms (for illustration) as wealth increases we can expect a “warmer” society leading to an increase of available states for different atoms (individuals).

As Temperature increases the amount of possible communities (states) also increases. And it is in due to that increase which leads to social isolation as more options are available. This reasoning does collide with Milton Friedman’s view on Freedom, as is not freedom the having of more options?

Social isolation is a complex subject to tackle as it is a multidimensional problem touching economics, culture, technology (among others) but at it’s core wouldn’t it be too far to think that the laws that govern our universe, could also apply to our societies as well?

On this topic I believe there are also parallels between Plato’s allegory of the Sun and the societal value system a society has. This which could also in part explain social isolation. If interested, I could develop on the subject on a latter date.

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Works Cited

  1. AARP Foundation. (2017, March 07). Income Plays a Role in Older Adults’ Happiness, According to New AARP Foundation Study.
  2. Atkins, P. (n.d.). Four Laws that drive the Universe. Oxford University Press.
  3. Clarke, J. F. (October 1, 1991). A Gathering of Wisdoms: Tribal Mental Health a Cultural Perspective. Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
  4. Gibbon, E. (1776–1789). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Strahan & Cadell, London.
  5. Kanas, N. (n.d.).
  6. Mannion, L. (n.d.). Britain appoints minister for loneliness amid growing isolation
  7. NSPCC. (2017, June 18). Loneliness a key concern for thousands of children
  8. Stephanie Cacioppo, J. P. (2014 ). Toward a neurology of loneliness. Psychol Bull., 1464–1504
  9. Temin, P. (n.d.). The Roman Market Economy. The Princeton Economic History of the Western World
  10. US Real GDP by Year. (n.d.). US Real GDP by Year
  11. WAITE, E. Y. (2009). Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health among Older Adults

[1] These are rough estimates

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