Love and mathematics. They are two words that don’t initially appear to be a good fit, yet, according to famed British mathematician Dr Hannah Fry – and a bunch of her fellow numerical and statistical geniuses – these two words are an absolutely perfect match. Like true love itself.
In fact, Dr Fry and Co’s faith in the combination of mathematics and affairs of the heart is so great, she goes so far to suggest that math can not only help you find and attract the perfect partner, it can also help you keep them.
And, incredibly, she appears to be correct. Very correct.
In her recent TED talk The Mathematics of Love (link below), Dr Fry concedes that “love doesn’t really work that way. Human emotion isn’t neatly ordered or rational or easily predication but I also know that doesn’t’ mean mathematics doesn’t have something to offer us.
However, she continues, “Love, as with most of life, is full of patterns and mathematics is, ultimately, all about the study of patterns.
“I believe mathematics is so powerful, it has the potential to offer us a new way of looking at almost anything, even something as mysterious as love.”
So, Dr Fry has combined her exemplary mathematic skills, knowledge and experience with the work of fellow mathematicians, economists and psychologists to unearth “mathematically verifiable” tips for finding long-term love.
No.1: How to win at online dating
Those of us who’ve tried our hand at online dating instinctively know to put our best foot –and face – forward. We only write the most flattering things about ourselves and highlight our best features and attributes, and, it should go without saying, that we use only our best photographs. After all, we’re trying to look as attractive as possible to a possible mate, aren’t we?
However, as widespread and sensible this behavior may be, the data says this approach is wrong. In fact, Dr Fry says all this data proves that appearing too attractive on an online dating website may actually be a disadvantage, so it’s best to appear ‘normal,’ ugly even.
She cites statistics shared by the folk at dating site OkCupid, which was started by mathematicians who constantly tweak the site and hone its matching algorithms based on data, almost a decade’s worth. This data shows that if your image is too beautiful, you won’t necessarily receive the most messages requesting contact, but that you’re better off with an average-looking presence.
Yes, how successful your profile will be isn’t based on how many people find you very attractive, but the overall average spread of how attractive – or unattractive, people find you. So, if viewers consider you too attractive (say a 5/5), they may avoid contacting you assuming their chances of success will be lower, whereas if you’re average looking (perhaps a 3/5 or a 2/5), they would instantly feel they’d have a better chance of success with you and, therefore, feel more confident contacting you.
So, it’s actually more beneficial to receive lots of 3/5s and 2/5s and you may still end up with the same average as someone who received fewer 5/5s or 4/5s.
As such, ditch that Photoshopped image and “play up to whatever it is that makes you different,’’ says Dr Fry. “Even if you think that some people will find that unattractive because the people who fancy you will fancy you anyway!”
See, “how attractive you are does not dictate how popular you are and, actually, having people think that you are ugly can work to your advantage.’’
No.2: How to pick the perfect partner
Ok, so you’ve received lots of requests and have met someone nice. How do you convert that to long-term happiness?
Toss a coin? Maybe not. Go with your gut? That usually works! Maths? Yep, you’ve probably got a better chance of getting it right.
Take a ‘typical’ person who might start dating aged 15 and hopes to married by the time they’re 35. They’ll date a number of people, but know that the first few are, unlikely, keepers. This is the period in your life where you’re learning about relationships and how to act within them and are, basically, learning the lay of the land of love.
The thing is, this is also about the time you need to start implementing a little Optimal Stopping Theory, which suggests that you automatically reject the first 37% of suitors as long-term mates, then pick the very next person who’s “better than anyone you’ve seen before” as the one you marry. Apparently, this is the mathematically proven way to maximize your ability to choose the perfect partner.
Of course, this theory doesn’t work if your perfect partner appears in the first 37%, or if the first 37% are horridly dull and virtually undateable because the next person may only be marginally less dull, in which case you’re stuck with them for life.
But, says Fry, this 37% formula is so spot on, it’s even found in the wild with certain species of wild fish using this exact same strategy to find a mate. The thing is, as crazy as this sounds, us humans actually do this sub-consciously anyway!
“We give ourselves time to play the field when we’re young and then we only start looking seriously for potential marriage candidates in mid 20s to 25, so everyone’s brains are prewired to be just a little bit mathematical anyway.”
No.3: How to avoid divorce
Ok, you’ve used Optimal Stop Theory to marry your perfect mate, but now how do you avoid becoming the one in every two marriages that ends in divorce?
Yes, you read that correctly. In 2003, psychologist John Gottman recorded the conversations of hundreds of couples as well as factors such as facial expressions and heart rates and discovered that it was possible to predict the future success of their relationships based on how positive or negative each partners were being during the conversations.
The couples with the lowest risk of breaking up were most positive with each other in their conversations, while those who found themselves in ‘spirals of negativities’ rated more highly for a potential to break up. Once Professor Gottman teamed with mathematician James Murray, they were able to predict the future of these relationships with about 90 per cent accuracy.
The result of this research was a rather complex looking equation based on the mood of each person when they were alone, when they were with their partner and, most importantly, how much the husband and wife influenced each other during these conversations.
Dr Fry notes that, ironically, this same equations perfectly predict what happens between two countries in an arms race. “So,’’ she says, only half-jokingly “an arguing couple spiraling into negative and teetering on the brink of divorce is actually mathematically equivalent to the beginning of a nuclear war!”
The Negativity Threshold, which can, roughly be explained as how annoying a husband can be before the wife becomes annoyed (or vice versa), determines how likely the couple are to divorce. Though you’d think the best relationships were those where couples let things go and had a high negativity threshold, this isn’t true. The maths, however, show the exact opposite is.
“The best couples have a low threshold. They don’t let anything go unnoticed and allow each other room to complain… and they have a much more positive outlook on their marriage… they don’t let trivial things being a really big deal. “It’s quite interesting to know that there is really mathematical evidence to say that you should never let the sun go down on your anger!”
So, it seems that maths and love are, indeed, the most perfect of partners and, by taking Dr Fry’s learnings to heart, you can be too.
[Hannah Fry’s terrific Ted Talk on which this blog post is based is called The Mathematics of Love and can be found here.]
Jeremi McManus is a Relationship Coach, Psychotherapist, and Couples Therapist who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist and delighted to call San Francisco home.