The symmetry thesis

The thesis is simple, and almost everyone disagrees with it upon first hearing.

The symmetry thesis: A given person likes (loves) you as much as you like (love) him or her.

I have encountered many apparent refutations of the symmetry thesis,
but with time most have turned out to be spurious.  I find the symmetry
thesis a surprisingly strong predictor of human behavior and

Do I want to know how much you like me?  It is simple.  I imagine
how much I like you.  (If you do the same, are we circular?  Or does
some kind of fixed point theorem apply?)

Let me rule out or explain some obvious "counterexamples."  If a guy
stalks you, and you can’t stand him, the reality is that he is probably
more hostile to you than loving.  The thesis fits.

Break-ups are tricky and they provide the best counterexamples.  But
who really left whom is not always obvious; it can take several years
to figure out what was going on.  Often the leaving party is the one
who first develops a narrative of how things might be different; this
is distinct from liking or loving the other person less.  Other people
leave pre-emptively.

Unilateral crushes are possible and indeed common, although with
repeated contact they usually collapse into symmetry, one way or the

I can imagine several (non-exclusive) mechanisms in support of the
symmetry thesis.  Perhaps "having a connection" — which is mutual by
nature — is the key to true liking and attraction.  That is my favored
view.  Note that it creates a possible exception for people who can
like or love others without having any real connection with them.  I
tend to think of such likes as delusional.

Alternatively, perhaps at least one person is a "fraidy cat," and
won’t let himself or herself fall for the other, or even like the
other, without witnessing signs of reciprocity.  The two people then
lead each other down the pathway of like, in a kind of low-key
intertemporal seduction, sans the sex.  Or with it.

Perhaps we like other people for their intrinsic qualities less than
we pretend.  Mostly we like people for liking (loving) us. 

Yes I know that most of you don’t believe it, and have plenty of
counterexamples to offer.  But keep it in the back of your mind, and
see if it proves useful over the next few years.


I think a common theoretical arguement against the symmetry thesis is the "Groucho Marx Syndrome", made manifest in Woodie Allen's Annie Hall: 'I refuse to join any club that will have me as a member.'

This maps into the truism 'wanting is better than having,' which has moderate support from hedonic theory.

Of course, after Alfie rejects Annie, he regrets his decision and his love returns.

And certainly, the exhortation to "love thine enemy" has immense practical value if the thesis holds.

Nor does The Other Brock really 'know' Jessica or Tom. It seems that Tyler is talking about relationships with some interactive component. I think the theorem is most useful in the 'long run' of relationships, that an equilibrium is reached where both parties feel similarly affection for each other.

Wow, I really like this idea. IMHO the issues with stalkers, crushes, and celebrities are resolved if you make the traditional distinction between lust and love. No, you don't like or even really know the object of your crush. Neediness isn't like either, which is one reason it is repellent.

The biggest problem with the symmetry thesis, though, is in explaininng parent/child and parent/teenager relationships. The "teenagers are emotionally unstable and constantly shifting" thesis may be more accurate there.

I really dig this theory.

I think it may also help to explain why insecure people do things (consciously or not) to push others away from them: they make the other person end up feeling as ambivalent about them as they feel about deserving the relationship in the first place.

So much for Plato (the Phaedrus in particular) and centuries of the lover/beloved dynamic.

I think this is somewhat true but much weaker than stated. People have a powerful desire to be liked if someone doesn't like a person a person will create a negative story about that person to explain why that person's opinion doesn't really matter. Conversly if Person A likes Person B, Person B will tend to form a positve story about Person A in order to inflate the worth of their attention. Of course both actors are playing by these compatable sets of rules so there is a tendancy to create powerful feedback loops.

I think Tyler's insight is generally correct and we can math this thing up a bit to get something real.

Think of a pair of difference equations

Delta (Y's Love for X) = alpha*E[(X's Love for Y)]
Delta (X's Love for Y) = alpha*E[(Y's Love for X)]

The intial points are determined by X and Y specific charateristics.

This implies, that if the intial points are close in feelings that we will move quickly towards some equilibrium. However, if they are far away there could be some interesting chase dynamics. Especially if we move from multiplication by alpha to a more complex mapping. Heavy love by one party could overcome antipathy from the other.

What would also be fascinating is if there is some exclusivity to love. This would imply that two people alone might very quickly graviate towards love but in an envrionment with multiple possible partners chaotic dynamics become quickly possible.

Also, the expectation operator is important because it helps explain love from afar. It can persist because there is not enough information to fully update the expectations operator. You will also note that crushes tend to increase if the person gains information which causes them to expect that the other person "would love them" if they got to know them.

Few people, I believe, have crushes on those who they anticipate would hate them even under the best circumstances.

Yeah, this feels more like a statement about the long run rather than the short run. As soon as one (or both) party recognizes the imbalance in feelings, a cycle of actions takes place to reconcile the imbalance. If your Marginal Love is greater than the other's, you "devalue" the person in some way (e.g., find faults that devalue your prior assessments, avoid them, healthily accept that you're just not meant to be together (ha!)); or, if you are the beloved, you "devalue" yourself or the relationship (e.g., don't return phone calls, fewer visits, stop smiling as much during interactions).

Of course it's imperfect: rationing access to the beloved may incite the lover that much more (i.e., stalkers, hopeless/helpless romantics). Not that I speak from experience....

In every relationship, there is a moment of maximum symmetry. Sadly, a man's emotional high points will rarely coincide with those of the woman he loves. Women and men are just too different. The longer a relationship goes on, the more moments occur when there's no match at all. And perhaps the mutual high points are all pretty much the same. The mismatches are all different, and so more memorable.

If the symmetry thesis is correct, then mathematics without meaningful units must think I'm silly.

Ben M. nailed it. Tyler's analysis goes down in flames and in a just world this thread would be over.

Of course, the world is not just, love is not symmetric, and the thread will continue, so I just want to point to parent/child love, which is frequently and obviously asymmetric (examples left as an exercise left to the reader).

Without some kind of constraint on initial conditions (I prefer brunettes or bookish women or whatever) this theory would generate infinite equilibria, right (there wouldn't be a fixed point in the system)? I think it describes dynamics fairly well (if I have unrequited love for someone either I will eventually get tired of being frustrated and move on or she will come to love me) but doesn't give any predictions about which people are most likely to end up in a couple together.

I guess the real question is if most people seek out someone who they think is likely to develop feelings for them. Couples would then be formed by mutually-reinforcing self-delusion.

This is off topic but I wanted to respond to Ted about the "Galbraithian in the long run we are all dead". That was stated by Keynes long before Galbraith. Keynes was asked about long term investing and Keynes said in the long run we are dead.

I don't believe it, and I have plenty of counter-examples to offer.

In my opinion, entertaining this idea past even 2 minutes of scrutiny implies a drastic lack of understanding of human emotion. The only way to even begin to salvage any truth to it is to impose extremely restrictive limitations.

Emboldened by your theory, I tested its accuracy in the real world. At the cost of a dent in my ego, I found it to be untrue, with a sample size of one.

It is impossible to test this theory, without actually making a new, genuine friend, or actually falling in love with someone (by falling in love, I mean that the object of your deep affection returns your deep affection).

"Note that it creates a possible exception for
people who can like or love others without having
any real connection with them. I tend to think
of such likes as delusional."

This illuminates a point which may disrupt your theory. Feelings between two people cannot be completely symetrical without being completely imagined. Imagining feelings from another person does not mean those feelings aren't actually there, but one party is still imagining them.

To illustrate, let's imagine that I meet a pretty girl. I instantly like them. Why? According to the symmetry theory, I like them because the girl likes me. But how do I know that the girl likes me? The girl has not likely said to me, "I like you." I mean, after all, we just met mere seconds ago.

This means that if I am indeed liking her because I think that she likes me, then I am only liking her because I am imagining that she is liking me.

Graphing the intensities with which two people feel attracted to each other with respect to time will show that there is never perfect symmetry in the levels of attraction two people have for each other. There is always a difference, or a gap, indicating a delay of reaction. If there is really a link between two people's personal level of attraction for each other, then there must be some linking mechanism. Either a mechanism of the imagination, some sort of psychic sense, or of pheromones. I suggest that it is a combination of imagination and pheromones, since I do not believe that true psychic empathy is possible in humans. In which case, since attraction is partially imaginary, then all feelings of attraction and eventually love, must be partially delusional.

Therefore, the only reason anyone on this planet hooks up at all is because we're all a bunch of insane, delusional, egotists.

Further discussion of may require a restriction of the domain of feelings to one type: the feeling of sexual attraction. However, if we define "liking" or "love" as a certain level of sexual attraction -- low, or high, respectively -- then there are some obvious exclusions -- one, being hetero-attraction. When a man likes another, but both men are genuinely heterosexual, this is obviously not the same feeling, because neither of them are sexually attracted to each other. Homosexual attraction, on the other hand, likely operates the same way as heterosexual attraction.

I really want this relationship to be true, because it would make it MUCH easier to program my video game that models a starship full of people and keeps track of how much each person likes/loves each other person on board.

Unfortunately I know from experience that this is not true at all. I can name at least three friends off the top of my head who find my friendship much more valuable than I find theirs. I always try to gently keep this from becoming obvious, but it's a fact of life, it happens sometimes.

Actually when I think about it further, all three of those friends are people who don't have very many other friends. So let's say that we do like each other equally, say we have 50 Like points toward each other. Well for me, that means that this person is like #11 on the people I like most, because I have many other friends that I like more. But for the other person, this may mean that I'm their best friend, because they don't have many other friends and/or they don't have any other friends that they like more than 50 points.

So you might have a point here. But I really, really do believe that some of my friends like me MUCH more than I like them... trust me.

bwahahaha omg this is such crap. counter example - pretty much every single human relationship. Are you only half serious, trying to provide one of those "hang in there" kitty posters, or are you actually serious?

It takes someone who'se been to college and considers themselves a "thinker" to come up with something this fucking stupid.

What I am going to write is from my experinces and mine alone. I find that girls have more chances in "love" than guys do. Why you might ask? When you got to a party, a club or any social gather, who do you see more? You see more guys than girls. This is the leverage that the girls have. Since most guys will try to hook up with the same girl, she has many choices to choose from. Either it be from attraction or connection. In reality, its mostly has to do with attraction. A quote I like to use is, "looks is what made me come to you, but your personality is what made me stay." Guys are more foward in a "relationship" or getting what they want. Guys are the ones more likely to approch a girl, then a girl would approch a guy even if she finds him attractive. Most the girls I know have been in 2x the relationship that my guy friends have been in. Why, it is because girls get more offers from guys than guys do from girls. When a girl breaks up, it is easily for her to have a "rebound" due to the fact that she probably have other offers waiting for her. When a guy breaks up, he might have other offers too or none at all, but more than likely have less than the girl. The girls I know would be in some short of a "relationship" with someone within a month or less after breaking up. For the guys, that might mean months to a year. Keep in mind that most guys see it as getting "some". For the girl, its more of an emotional thing.

Very grateful to a bunch of much better skills. I look forward to reading more of the future of the subject. Keep the good work. Thanks!

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