The DISTANCE Procedure

Symmetric versus Asymmetric Nominal Variables

A binary variable contains two possible outcomes: 1 (positive/present) or 0 (negative/absent). If there is no preference for which outcome should be coded as 0 and which as 1, the binary variable is called symmetric. For example, the binary variable is evergreen? for a plant has the possible states loses leaves in winter and does not lose leaves in winter. Both are equally valuable and carry the same weight when a proximity measure is computed. Commonly used measures that accept symmetric binary variables include the Simple Matching, Hamann, Roger and Tanimoto, Sokal and Sneath 1, and Sokal and Sneath 3 coefficients.

If the outcomes of a binary variable are not equally important, the binary variable is called asymmetric. An example of such a variable is the presence or absence of a relatively rare attribute, such as is color-blind for a human being. While you say that two people who are color-blind have something in common, you cannot say that people who are not color-blind have something in common. The most important outcome is usually coded as 1 (present) and the other is coded as 0 (absent). The agreement of two 1’s (a present-present match or a positive match) is more significant than the agreement of two 0’s (an absent-absent match or a negative match). Usually, the negative match is treated as irrelevant. Commonly used measures that accept asymmetric binary variables include Jaccard, Dice, Russell and Rao, Binary Lance and Williams nonmetric, and Kulcynski coefficients.

When nominal variables are employed, the comparison of one data unit with another can only be in terms of whether the data units score the same or different on the variables. If a variable is defined as an asymmetric nominal variable and two data units score the same but fall into the absent category, the absent-absent match is excluded from the computation of the proximity measure.