Action and Reaction Forces: Law & Examples

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  • 0:04 Action Forces Defined
  • 0:38 Newton's Third Law
  • 3:53 Action-Reaction Diagrams
  • 4:31 Action-Reaction Examples
  • 7:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Elena Cox
Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

Action force is force acting in one direction. Reaction force is force acting in the opposite direction. Learn more about Newton's Third Law as it explains action and reaction forces through several examples, and test your knowledge with quiz questions.

What Are Action Forces?

To begin, forces always act in pairs and always act in opposite directions. When you push on an object, the object pushes back with an equal force. Think of a pile of books on a table. The weight of the books exerts a downward force on the table. This is the action force. The table exerts an equal upward force on the books. This is the reaction force. Note that the two forces act on different objects. The action force acts on the table, and the reaction force acts on the books.

Force Pairs and Newton's Third Law

Newton's Third Law states that forces always act in pairs. Consider an example of a boy playing with a dog's toy and what it illustrates. There is a force from the boy on the dog's toy, and there is a force from the dog's toy on the boy. These two forces create an interaction pair. Forces always come in pairs similar to this example. Consider the boy (A) as one system and the toy (B) as another. What forces act on each of the two systems? Picture the boy pulling on a toy and the toy being pulled from the boy. You can see that each system exerts a force on the other. The two forces - F(A on B) and F(B on A) - are the forces of interaction between the two. Notice the symmetry in: A on B and B on A.

The forces F(A on B)and F(B on A) are an interaction pair, which is a set of two forces that are in opposite directions, have equal magnitudes and act on different objects. Sometimes, an interaction pair is called an action-reaction pair. This might suggest that one causes the other; however, this is not true. For example, the force of the boy pulling on the toy doesn't cause the toy to pull on the boy. The two forces either exist together or not at all.

There can never be a single force acting alone. Forces only come in action-reaction pairs. Think carefully about propelling a skateboard with your foot. Your foot presses backward against the ground. The force acts on the ground. However, you move, so a force must act on you, too. Why do you move? What force acts on you? You move because the action force of your foot against the ground creates a reaction force of the ground against your foot. You 'feel' the ground because you sense the reaction force pressing on your foot. The reaction force is what makes you move because it acts on you.

Newton's Third Law of Motion explains that forces always come in action-reaction pairs. The Third Law states that for every action force, there is an equal and opposite reaction force. Imagine hitting a baseball. The bat exerts a force on the ball. This is the action force. The ball exerts an equal and opposite force on the bat. This is the reaction force. Such an interaction pair is another example of Newton's Third Law. The baseball forces the bat in one direction and the bat forces the ball in the opposite direction. The two forces create an interaction pair on different objects and are equal in strength and opposite in direction. The force(F) of A(the bat) on B(the ball) is equal in magnitude and opposite in direction of the force of B on A: F(A on B) = - F(B on A).

Newton realized that if one object pulls on another, the second object also pulls back on the first object. If one object pushes on another, the second pushes back on the first object. In other words, for every action by a force there is a reaction by another force.

Action-Reaction Pair Diagrams

When sorting out action and reaction forces, it is helpful to draw diagrams. Draw each object apart from the other. Represent each force as an arrow in the appropriate direction. The guidelines on this chart can help you sort out action and reaction forces.

Consider the situation of holding a book in your hand. You can draw one diagram for you and one for the book. Are there any interaction pairs? You can use arrows to represent force and the direction of the force. In this case, the interaction pair is the force of the book on the hand and the force of the hand on the book.

Action-Reaction Examples

We've gone through some examples already. But what are some other action-reaction examples? Let's look at a rocket engine. Newton's Third Law explains how rocket engines work. Hot gases are forced out of the back of the rocket. This is the action force. The gases exert an equal and opposite force on the rocket. This is the reaction force. The reaction pushes the rocket upward and off the ground.

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Additional Activities

Newton's Third Law in Action:

This activity will help students conceptualize action and reaction forces using an example presented in the lesson. To complete this activity, you'll need two straws, masking tape, two balloons, and two 2m pieces of string.


Now that you know about Newton's third law, it's time to put your knowledge to work. Here, we're going to be building model rockets using balloons and looking at the relationship between action and reaction forces.

  1. Start by cutting two 2m pieces of string. Secure one end of the string to the wall or a desk with masking tape.
  2. Next, blow up two balloons, one smaller than the other, but don't tie them off. Tape one straw to the top of each balloon and hold them so they don't let out the air.
  3. Thread one string through one straw and the other through the other straw. Then carefully, without letting the balloons go, secure the other side of the string to a wall, desk or chair on the other side of the room with masking take.
  4. Drag the balloons to one side and carefully let them fly. Observe which balloon went farther.


  1. What made the balloons fly forward?
  2. Why did one balloon travel farther than the other?
  3. Our balloon is a model of a rocket. How it compares to how a real rocket ship works? What are the action and reaction forces for a real rocket?

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