Asymmetric assistance

Symmetric assistance is when a lot of help goes a long way – think helping a friend move, or being a teacher.

Asymmetric assistance is when a little help goes a long way.

One platform for asymmetric assistance is Stack Overflow, which gets programmers unstuck by matching their questions up with people who know the answer.

More ways we can provide asymmetric assistance:

• technical expertise
• praise
• encouragement
• microfunding
• advice

Few asymmetric assistance marketplaces come to mind. Why aren't there more of them?

One reason may be that the dynamics are weird – at both the platform and the individual level.

On the platform level, marketplaces are easily flooded by requests for help. That creates too much work for helpers and a low hit-rate for those who need help – thereby spoiling the asymmetry, the assistance, or both. This is why Stack Overflow makes it reasonably difficult to post a question.

On the individual level, we just don't seem wired to give asymmetric assistance. Symmetric assistance – effortful help – comes more naturally to us. It's as if not sacrificing something is like not having a receipt for our generosity.

An embarrassing example: it took me about 10 years in the workplace before I started praising people to their managers. I'd just never thought to do it. And this is an example of double asymmetric assistance: it's no trouble at all to help out both the employee and the manager (by saving them time on their evaluations).

Tyler Cowen gives another example from his days as an admissions officer:

One of my favorite strategies was to take strong candidates who applied for Masters and also offer them Ph.D admissions, suggesting they might to do the latter.

Cowen goes on to say:

At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind.  It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.