Love: The Numbers Game

Victoria Gao investigates how the unruly patterns of love can be uniquely deciphered using maths and presents three top tips, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Love is one of those human conditions that is difficult to define and even harder to explain. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, love is described as the most wonderful form of madness – the intense passion that can take you from the highest highs to the lowest lows. For most people, this madness is a core pursuit in life – from dating, to relationships, to marriage. Yet ironically, there are few human emotions harder to feel, develop, offer, accept or maintain as love. For centuries, it has been the riddle that philosophers, singers and mathematicians alike have attempted to solve.

In today’s age, the abundance of data has allowed us to use patterns to shed some light on love. In her TED talk, University College of London mathematician Hannah Fry argues:

“Mathematics is ultimately the study of patterns — predicting phenomena from the weather to the growth of cities, revealing everything from the laws of the universe to the behavior of subatomic particles… Love — [like] most of life — is full of patterns: from the number of sexual partners we have in our lifetime to how we choose who to message on an internet dating website. These patterns twist and turn and warp and evolve just as love does, and are all patterns which mathematics is uniquely placed to describe.”

From Fry’s statistical findings about love, here are three lovely tips (pun intended) just in time for Valentine’s day:

Top Tip #1: How to win at online dating – Don’t be very attractive

Online dating website, OkCupid, was started by a group of mathematicians and they have been collecting data on everybody who uses their site for almost a decade. It turns out, in online dating, how attractive you are does not dictate your popularity – having people think that you’re ugly can work to your advantage. Why? According to Fry, the best case scenario is when you think they are attractive but you suspect that other people won’t necessarily be interested. That means there’s less competition for you and it’s an extra incentive for you to get in touch. Whereas compare that to if you think somebody is attractive but you suspect that everybody is going to think they’re attractive. Well, why would you bother humiliating yourself, let’s be honest?

Top Tip #2: How to pick the perfect partner – Reject the first 37% of your dates

Say you start dating when you’re 15 and ideally, you’d like to be married by the time that you’re 35. And there’s a number of people that you could potentially date across your lifetime, and they’ll be at varying levels of goodness. Fry’s maths says that: “you should reject the first 37% of your dating window as serious marriage potential. And then, you should pick the next person that comes along that is better than everybody that you’ve seen before”. In other words, to have the highest chance of picking the very best suitor, you should date and reject the first 37% of your total group of lifetime suitors.

Top Tip #3: How to avoid divorce – Argue a lot

Psychologist John Gottman observed hundreds of couples having a conversation. What he found was that one of the most important predictors is the negativity threshold. This can be thought of as how annoying the wife can be before the husband starts to get angry, and vice versa. Intuitively, good marriages should be about compromise and understanding. So logically, the most successful relationships were ones that had a high negativity threshold, right? The mathematics shows the opposite to be true. The most successful couples are ones with a really low negativity threshold. These couples don’t let anything go unnoticed and allow each other to complain. As a result, they are continually trying to repair their own relationship and hence have a much more positive outlook on their marriage.

If you are like me, these statistics were insanely hilarious and unexpected. And that is the beauty of statistics. They don’t apply to everyone – statistics are just the “most likely” case but where could always be an outlier.

Perhaps that is why we cannot easily define love. Love is an experience uniquely our own. Perhaps in one way or another, we are always the outlier in love.

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