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The Symmetry Principle

A deceptively simple idea we all need to understand.

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Copyright © 2008, P. Lutus

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Human Symmetry


We humans have an annoying habit of taking credit for things that already exist in nature, like intelligence, a moral sense, reasoning ability, tool use, empathy, complex strategies, language skills — a long list. As it turns out, by studying nature with an open mind, we've observed all these supposedly unique human qualities among animals.

As to the topic of this article, coöperation and bargaining for mutual advantage was on the list of things we once imagined to be uniquely human, but over time we've uncovered a number of examples in which animals create associations of mutual advantage, detect and punish cheaters, and tune the relationship for maximum fairness — all the classic behaviors. In an article named "How Animals Do Business", researchers describe how animals exhibit many of the traits we expect to see in human economic behavior, including coöperation, reciprocation of favors, and punishment of freeloaders.

I emphasize symmetry's natural connection for two reasons. One, its strong presence in nature shows that it has survival value and therefore doesn't need to be justified as though it's a new, untested idea. Two, the idea very clearly predates human beings, so we can't justify claiming it as a human invention or a unique human trait (as we have tried to do in the past).


Because the payoff might lie far in the future, reciprocity is a tricky business. An animal might wait weeks or months for a favor to be repaid, but studies show that cheaters are eventually identified and sanctioned. Among humans, the use of language makes things much more complicated, because, as Sam Goldwyn once remarked, "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on."

Also, there are certain mental disturbances that, for all practical purposes, prevent some individuals from ever reciprocating favors, regardless of the personal price they pay. The behavior I am describing is irrational, by which I mean it eventually backfires and reduces the survival fitness of the person who engages in the behavior, therefore it's only possible to attribute the behavior to a self-destructive mental disturbance, not a rational evaluation of circumstances.

These cheaters, who end up ultimately cheating themselves, I'll call "narcissists" (my convenient label for a spectrum of disorders), and there are plenty of them. It is because of narcissists that productive, reciprocal relationships tend to form only between people who have taken the time to know and trust each other.

"Benevolent tit-for-tat" or "symmetry" is an optimal strategy because it punishes exploitative behavior by immediately responding in kind. So in a typical social situation, a cheater gets a sample of his own behavior, and that player might react by modifying his own behavior in the next round. This is a typical sequence of events among young, inexperienced players who quickly learn that the symmetry system can't be exploited without unacceptable personal consequences.

Rational players quickly learn how symmetry works and adjust their own behavior in what is essentially an open-air psychological training program, and over time they learn how to play the game by instinct. Such a person can live in the same neighborhood his entire life. Narcissists, by contrast, and no matter how often their behavior is sanctioned, never learn how to play the game, which is why narcissism is coming to be regarded as incurable. And by contrast with rational people, narcissists can't live in the same neighborhood for very long — they must keep moving to escape the consequences of their own behavior, and to seek new fools willing to trust them.

Because of America's mobile society, separating rational players from narcissists and other cheaters becomes more complicated. According to recent statistics, 14% of Americans pick up and move each year. By moving away, some of these people sacrifice the trust they've built up with their neighbors, while others escape the consequences of their past actions. When the travelers arrive at their destination, a fresh new symmetry game starts, and everyone needs to be sorted out all over again. This constant churning effect may help to explain the craziness and anxiety of contemporary American society.

Top-down vs. Bottom-up

On reading this essay, some may believe the Symmetry Principle, and its presence in nature, argues in favor of socialism. On the other hand, a dispassionate reading of recent human history shows, to be blunt, that socialism doesn't work. How can both be true?

The answer to this question lies not in arguments for a strategy of coöperation and self-sacrifice with the expectation of reciprocity — that obviously works. What doesn't work is a system that tries to impose symmetry from above — a so-called "top-down" system. It turns out that symmetry only works between individuals — a "bottom-up" system. It doesn't matter how many transactions there are, nor how big the overall system is, it only matters that the essential logic be played out between individuals, each one acting on a reasonable expectation of reciprocity.

To put this another way, symmetry doesn't "scale well". The consequences of symmetry scale just fine, indeed an entire society may be built out of many small coöperative transactions, but it's not possible to build a grand top-down social scheme out of the symmetry idea — at least, not one that works.

Some insightful readers may see what appears to be a flaw in this argument — a system that works perfectly well between individuals should be able to work at a larger scale as well. To reply I need to explain the difference between bottom-up and top-down systems that rely on reciprocation.

In a bottom-up example of symmetry, a favor either is, or is not, reciprocated — there is no ambiguity about it. Either the other person picks up his end of the log, or he doesn't. Either both oars are in the water and the boat moves in a straight line, or only one oar is in the water and the boat moves in a circle. No explanations, no excuse, no promises, coöperation either exists or it doesn't, in the most tangible physical sense. And, without sentiment or mercy, cheaters are either reformed or expelled.

In top-down symmetry, because of the issue of distance and the number of players, symbols come to represent reality — language begins to stand for actions, and the time delay between sacrifice and reciprocation becomes longer. Once it is possible to replace actual coöperation with the symbolic kind, the same people who cannot meet their obligations in bottom-up symmetry naturally find their way to the highest rung of the top-down form, where they proceed to make the same promises they couldn't keep when they were at the bottom. The critical difference is that, once the narcissists have floated to the top, they get into a position to forever escape personal accountability for their inability to deliver on their promises. This explains the abnormally large percentage of narcissists in high social positions, as well as their reputation for ruthlessness and stupidity.

This is why modern centralized government is largely a fantasy. In a healthy society, regardless of what form of government exists, individuals act in their own self-interest and accept personal responsibility for their actions. They also form associations based on coöperation and reciprocation, and because those associations exist at the lowest level, they either work or they are abandoned, relatively quickly.

The wisest leaders in government recognize their powerlessness to influence events, so they adjust to this reality — they find out what people are going to do anyway, order them to do it, and take credit for the result. It would be nice if this were the entire story of modern government, but from time to time, a seriously unbalanced narcissist assumes power and tries to steer events as though society could be controlled from the top. This never works.

Organized from the Bottom

It has become clear that biology is a bottom-up system — evolution by way of natural selection only works through a contest carried out in nature between individual organisms. The system must be based on individuals because a particular genetic mutation that embodies a selective advantage can only arise in an individual, who is then tested against the environment and either dies or reproduces. There may eventually be billions of that genotype in nature, but all of them must originate in a single mutant organism that came into existence by chance and then passed nature's brutal tests.

It is important to recognize what symmetry is — it's simply an adaptation, like brown eyes or a sense of humor, something that confers a selective advantage in nature's contest. It happens to involve more than one organism, but apart from that detail, it is just a low-level trait, and, like a single-point genetic mutation, it happens to have propagated across many different kinds of organisms based solely on merit. Consequently, symmetry is a bottom-up system in the same way and for the same reason that natural selection is.

It's possible to make too much of a comparison with nature, but it seems that most effective systems are organized from the bottom. Even such esoterica as scientific and medical discoveries, and technical breakthroughs, tend overwhelmingly to emanate from individuals or small groups working in isolation. Large corporations sometimes recognize this and create quasi-independent laboratories to free creative minds from the corporate mind-set. One example is AT&T's creation of Bell Labs, later responsible for radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory and other achievements.

Closing Thoughts

In my opinion, people should pay more attention to their individual development and less to what organizations they belong to and what grand beliefs they hold. As one gains life experience (and in my opinion), it becomes increasingly clear that government, just like the individual narcissists that make it up, can only promise things, but cannot possibly deliver on its promises. Attachment to these institutions can only set one up for a level of exploitation that couldn't possibly exist in a one-on-one relationship.

Does this mean one should put one's trust in individuals instead? No, of course not — unless and until they have proven themselves to you. There is a principle in science called the "null hypothesis" that is useful in this connection — it says an idea is false until it's demonstrated to be true. This happens to be the opposite of how most people think — for an average person, something is assumed to be true until proven false. I personally think the null-hypothesis idea has it all over assuming things are true until proven false, especially because there are all kinds of things people hold to be true that are quite false.

For example, the majority of people believe if you flip a fair coin and it comes up heads, the next flip is more likely to come up tails. That false belief has a name — it's called "The Gambler's Fallacy." Here's an example — if you haven't yet flipped a fair coin, the probability for heads is exactly 50%. If you flip the coin and you get heads eight times in a row, the probability for heads on the next flip is... get ready ... 50%. Casinos make piles of money exploiting the Gambler's Fallacy.

Here are some brief corollaries to the Symmetry Principle:

  • If you won't take responsibility when things go wrong, you can't take credit when things go right.
  • Don't let people manipulate you by appealing to your self-image as a "nice person." You are only obliged to be as nice as the person who is manipulating you — no more, no less.
  • If someone tries to manipulate you by claiming a personal connection with God, just say, "I want to talk to your supervisor."
  • In a heated discussion, you may respond in kind, but don't escalate. If you escalate, you grant permission for the other person to escalate as well (reciprocation), and who knows where that might lead?
  • Because a sadist is defined as someone who is nice to a masochist, don't be either one.
  • Many people will give you a second chance, but that doesn't mean you deserve it — you don't. You have to earn it. You squandered your first chance, and only baseball has third chances. Life isn't baseball.
  • If someone starts an argument with "My therapist says ...", just walk out of the room.
  • Don't expect to be treated differently than you treat others.


Because only about 10% of this article is based on scientific evidence, most of it could be wrong. Even the scientific part might turn out to be wrong. To my educated readers, this won't matter because those people can efficiently filter the wheat from the chaff. To my uneducated readers, be very skeptical and take this article as 90% opinion, not revealed truth.


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