Symmetry is an important principle recurring throughout nature, including social interactions. The word is derived from the Greek root symmetria meaning “common measure”. The concept extends to include harmony, balance, pleasing proportions, rhythm, harmony, and equilibrium. Symmetry is often related to beauty, truth, and good which represent positive values in the arts, sciences, and ethics respectively. Several emotions and other social interactions are attempts to attain or restore symmetry or its opposite, asymmetry.
- Apparent Balance
The Greeks interpreted the word as the harmony of the different parts of an object, including good proportions between its constituent parts. Later this meaning was transferred to include the rhythm of poems, of music, and even the cosmos. Harmony, proportion, balance, and equilibrium are also close synonyms. A lack of symmetry is described as asymmetry.
Asymmetrical balance refers to a kind of balance that does not rely on symmetry. This occurs in art and design when several smaller items on one side are balanced by a large item on the other side, or smaller items are placed further away from the center than larger items. It is the basis of fair commercial exchange where goods are exchanged for an equivalent amount money. It allows for an apology to be accepted as fair exchange for a tangible loss.
Symmetry in Social Interactions
We observe the symmetrical nature, often including asymmetrical balance, of social interactions in a variety of contexts. These include reciprocity, empathy, apology, dialogue, respect, justice, and revenge. The architecture for interaction classifies behavior according to its symmetry. Symmetrical interactions send the message “we are all the same” while asymmetrical interactions send the message “I am special; better than you”. Peer relationships are based on symmetry, power relationships are based on asymmetry.
The mutual exchange of reciprocity is based on the principle of symmetry interpreted as fair exchange. We are fascinated by keeping account of helpful and hurtful actions; including our own and those of others. We constantly appraise the balance in each account as they accumulate the value of our social exchanges with acquaintances. A simple test for symmetry in exchange is to ask: “would you be willing to swap places” if the exchange is symmetrical, it is a fair deal viewed from either side.
When we appreciate another's situation and point of view, we recognize the similarities we share as humans. The golden rule expresses the importance of maintaining symmetry and balance as we encounter others. Empathy is attaining a point of view that emphasizes the symmetry between the self and the other. Empathy creates mutual relationships where each action benefits everyone in the relationship.
The Golden Rule
The golden rule: “Treat others as you want to be treated” is a direct appeal for symmetry in relationships. It expresses the importance of reciprocity and empathy.
An effective apology may be accepted when a tangible loss cannot be undone. A asymmetrical balance is established where the remorse of the offender offsets the loss suffered by the injured person. Reparations may also be required to help strike a closer balance.
Dialogue is the symmetrical exchange of ideas between peers. Other forms of communication are asymmetrical.
When we treat others as we expect to be treated, we are creating a symmetrical relationship. Respect is recognizing the symmetry of this human connection.
Fair treatment under the law is an important justice principle. This acknowledges the balance of fair exchange and the goal of evenhanded treatment of people under the law. “Fairness” is often used as a synonym for justice. A balance symbolizes the “Scales of Justice”. Power, defined by asymmetry, breeds injustice.
Anger is an urgent plea for justice and action. Injustice, imbalance, and unfair treatment often trigger anger.
Revenge is an attempt to settle the score and restore balance. Revenge is the destructive side of reciprocity. “Getting even”—the battle cry of revenge—is a direct plea for inflicting symmetrical injury, harm, or losses.
Asymmetry in Social Interactions
Asymmetry is the lack of symmetry and balance. It is unbalanced, uneven, unequal, inequitable, lopsided, or one-sided. It is apparent in hierarchies, forms the basis of power, the fuel for hate, and the fundamental asymmetry of the first-person viewpoint contributes to humiliation, envy, jealousy, and unrequited love.
Hierarchies are fundamentally asymmetrical. The boss oversees the work of several workers, the teacher has many students, and the doctor's waiting room is full of patients. Hierarchies establish and distribute power.
Asymmetry is the defining attribute of power. The strong are not the weak. The boss is expected to show anger and the workers are expected to submit, obey, and suppress its expression.
Seeing things from your own point of view is always easier, and first-hand experiences seem more real, than understanding another's point of view can ever be. This unique first-person experience creates a fundamental asymmetry that contributes to many of the other asymmetries described here. It also contributes to the asymmetric character of egotism, narcissism, selfishness, greed, and the magnitude gap. Your own point of view, the way you see things, is unique. We have a great need for self-justification. The golden rule and our empathy struggles to overcome this fundamental imbalance.
Hate is based on emphasizing and exaggerating the differences between you and your enemy. We are not like the evil other and must eliminate or destroy him. Bias refers to the imbalanced perceptions that lead to hate.
Humiliation is the asymmetrical message “you are not as good as me”. Our stature is not symmetrical. It depends on the inherent asymmetries of injustice, disrespect, and power differentials.
Envy is an attempt to attain symmetrical (equivalent) stature, or establish an asymmetry, with yourself on top.
Jealousy is the concern that “you love someone else more that you love me”. It is the complaint that your love is not asymmetrical enough; I am not special enough for you. Love has to be clearly asymmetrical to avoid jealousy.
“You don't love me as much as I love you” expresses the asymmetry that defines unrequited love.
The present is immediate, here and now. The future is abstract, distant, and speculative. Immediate satisfaction appears more valuable than the promise of future satisfaction. The possibility of preserving the earth for future generations does not compare to the thrill of driving a big car now. Evaluating immediate gain against a future benefit is inherently asymmetrical. Only a strong advocate for future generations can overcome this inherent asymmetry.
Asymmetry is the essence of hypocrisy. It defines power differentials and denies empathy. Treating others as you refuse to be treated mocks the golden rule. Many other examples exist including: “Do what I say, not what I do”, and the many instances where what is good enough for you is not good enough for me.
The Website of Symmetry Provided by György Darvas.
Symmetry, Wikipedia entry.
Symmetry. Dictionary.com entry.