The Fallacy of Symmetry

James Prashant Fonseka
5 min readJun 13, 2021


We’re drawn to symmetry. Aesthetically, it feels right. Take a rectangular piece of paper and draw a straight line down the center. That looks right. Now take another piece of identically sized paper and a drawn another straight line, but this time, move it over just barely discernibly off center. That feels just a little weird to most of us. If you don’t believe me, try it. It’s not just our eyes that are primed to expect symmetry.

For whatever reason, we tend to expect symmetry in interpersonal interactions. This expectation is at once practical and energetic. If I am nice to someone, my seemingly natural instinct is to expect them to be nice to me. If I bring good energy and intention into a space, I tend to expect to receive the same or similar from others. This across areas of life including travel, work, and romance.

Airlines board by groups, or so I think. I remember one time that I was particularly stressed about getting my carry-on onto a delayed flight without being checked into the cargo area. I’m sure most of us have been there at one point or another. I was in the second to last boarding group, so I thought I had some change of getting my bag into the overhead bin. In theory, I definitely should have been able to, but I noticed the waiting area emptying a little faster than expected as people were boarding the flight. Others had the same anxiety as me and were cutting line, boarding before they were supposed to. I thought about doing the same, but knew I would be called soon anyway.

The moment my group was called, I rushed up. The person right in front of me was the last to get their bag onto the plane. To make matters worse, I saw their boarding pass, and saw they were actually in the last group behind mind. For a moment I protested this injustice, but quickly yielded to the utterly unmoved and unsympathetic expression on the gate agent’s face, as I handed my bag over to a big sigh, and hours later mostly missed the important meeting I was rushing to in San Francisco after waiting a solid 30 extra minutes for my carry on to show up on the baggage carousel. Symmetry failed me. I was playing by the rules, so I expected others to as well. They didn’t. If symmetry going bad is frustrating when traveling, it’s even worse in romance.

I can’t say I’ve mastered romance or dating, but my experiences thus far have demonstrated the fallacy of symmetry. On the energy of approaching dating earnestly, it was sadly impossible for me to approach dating apps with full authenticity and have any success in meeting anyone. My pipeline of potential dates was just just low, but actually zero. By playing those apps as games, I had slightly more success, but ultimately withdrew from them entirely because I don’t playing those sorts of games.

In dating and romance, I have observed my friends tending to expecting symmetry in their interactions with partners and potential partners. I’m sure we have all heard some variation of, “I am doing x, y, and z, but they aren’t!” The exclamation point is essential, as this always seems to come across in a particularly exasperated, frustrated, and somewhat surprised tone. Their surprise reveals that by doing do x, y, and z, they expect their partner to also do x, y, and z, and are frustrated when they don’t. I’m not sure when I became a bit cynical on these matters, but it’s hard for me to feel surprised or shocked when I hear this. I too used to expect symmetry, but the simple reality is interpersonal relationships do not be default play out in this way.

I’m not sure where the expectation of symmetry originates. It may be nature, nurture, or some combination of both. At least part if it seems to be nature, as we mirror one another emotionally, verbally, and physically. I might add energetically to that list. As a simple demonstration, you can try crossing legs when you are meeting with or speaking to someone in close proximity. People do not do this all time, but if you keep trying it, you will find others tend to mirror your movement. Note that it will actually mirror, and not just copy. If you cross left over right, they will likely cross left over right. This happens subconsciously. Perhaps part of why we expect symmetry is that we do indeed have an instinct towards symmetric behavior. In general this reinforces that expectation, which is why it persists in most of us. But this expectation is far from immutable.

Breaking symmetry is at first uncomfortable, but also powerful. The elevator trick is a fun one that works. People tend to face an elevator door when standing in an elevator. But if you walk into an elevator, you can face the back, and not only does that not break any laws of humans or physics, but you will also find that people will tend to copy you, and also face the back of the elevator. It feels awkward, but is quite funny to try and witness this quirk in human behavior.

I caution against breaking symmetry for bad purposes. Sadly, people do this all too often. People break the basic trust in society through actions like approaching people and asking a seemingly innocent and genuine question while pick-pocketing them, or being really nice over the phone when scamming someone. People will create fake profiles on the internet, rent cars on Turo, meet the owners and act friendly and nice, then steal the car, take it a chop shop, and disappear. People with bad intentions have learned to abuse the expectation of symmetry. But people with good intentions should also understand it’s power and limitations.

For one, symmetry is not a good expectation. It’s not the worst, but one must be cautious with it. Two, we must realize when to break symmetry. Effective startup founders often do this all the time as they rethink assumed norms and rules. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s part of the process. At other times, it’s simply good to break symmetry.

We tend to respond to anger and violence in kind. Often, it’s our instinct to. But we don’t have to. As a teacher, a great lesson was that when someone is yelling and screaming at you, the most powerful action one can take is to look at them with love and calm. It is hard to do and defies our instincts, but creates light from dark; an alchemy better than turning lead to gold. We need not be bound to symmetry.