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Major and Minor Asymmetry

Major and Minor Asymmetry

The notion of asymmetry comes up a lot in security and strategy. While the following discussion is at best tentative, here's one way we've thought of breaking it down using two two major axes:

  • Achilles/Odysseus and

  • Apollo/Dionysus.

By way of explanation, here are some rough associations for each axial pole:

  • Achilles: Force, power, control

  • Odysseus: Deception, stratagem, influence

  • Apollo: Rationality, discipline, "left brain"

  • Dionysus: Emotion, impulse, chaos, "right brain"

Crossing the two axes yields four quadrants:

  1. Achilles/Apollo (~ direct/~ rational),

  2. Achilles/Dionysus (~ direct/~ emotional),

  3. Odysseus/Dionysus (~ indirect/~ emotional), and

  4. Odysseus/Apollo (~ indirect/~ rational). for


In informal terms, quadrant 1 represents the opponent who first thinks about it and then punches you hard right in the nose. Quadrant 2 represents the opponent who, in his blind anger, starts swinging indiscriminately. Quadrant 3 represents the opponent who, in his anger or jealousy, impulsively criticizes you to anyone and everyone who will listen, thereby turning your friends against you. Finally, quadrant 4 represents the careful, thoughtful opponent who, appearing to be your friend, tricks you into doing something against your interests.

Playing this out further, we posit that quadrants that share borders (1-2, 2-3, 3-4, 4-1) represent minor asymmetries, and quadrants at opposite corners (1-2, 2-4) represent major asymmetries. All other things being equal, most of us will find it easier to process situations involving minor asymmetry. Situations involving major asymmetry will be more difficult to understand and process (for both us and, in many cases, our adversaries).

What's more, we suspect that sometimes an adversary—depending on the situation or level of provocation—might shift quadrants. Alternatively, an adversary might sometimes wear a mask, intentionally or unintentionally.

While the neatly chunked categories of the four-square model suggests completeness and order, very little in life is complete or easily categorized. In other words, take the model for what it is: a conversational attempt to overlay some simple order on top of messy behavior. That said, simple models sometimes reveal important factors or interrelationships we might otherwise overlook.

In this case, we suggest using the model as a rough-and-ready lens through which to view yourself and your adversaries. Consider how your adversary typically behaves, and beware of possible shifts and masks. Ask yourself how your adversary perceives you and what signals or provocations you might be sending your adversary. If you want to take it to the next level, explore the possibilities offered by states of con and hypercon. Whatever you do, don’t simply assume that you and your adversary will always think alike, even if (or especially when) your capabilities and preferences are similar.

Red Teaming 'Sparks'

Red Teaming 'Sparks'

Yes, Norbert, We Agree!

Yes, Norbert, We Agree!