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The Mathematics of Love?

Not sure how to select a partner out of the dating pool? A simple math rule helps you select your special someone.


Leave it up to the mathematicians to find the solution to this age-old conundrum. That's because the problem isn't limited to the complex world of social relations. In fact, it's a math problem that goes by a few names - the secretary problem, the optimal stopping problem and the best choice problem. While this solution was created by a bunch of mathematicians, it was introduced to the marriageable masses in a Scientific American column in 1960. In more contemporary times, mathematician Hannah Fry also made it the subject of a TED talk in 2014. 


The scenario that sets up the calculation goes like this: imagine you have 11 potential suitors whom you could consider as a life partner. Unfortunately you haven't met all 11 of them but you can't go back to those you already rejected. If you're not keen on going through all 11, which suitor should you pick? 


According to math, you should turn down the first 37 percent of all the suitors in your life and - here's the important bit - pick the next person who is better than everyone you have dated. If you're into details, the exact equation is actually 1/e, which should come out to 0.368 or 36.8 percent. In this case, you should say no nicely up to Mr or Ms 4, because one person from candidate No. 5 and onwards is likely to be the most suitable partner for you. Translated mathematically, picking anyone or anything randomly out of 11 options, would give you success rate of 9 percent, far lower than 37 percent than the formula affords you. By the way, this also applies if you're hiring staff or finding an apartment. 


But while Fry pointed out in her TED talk, "love, as with most of life, is full of patterns and mathematics; it's ultimately, all about the study of patterns", there's still good cause for romantics to rely on emotions rather than data to pick a partner. After all, real relationships are far more complex than formulas. To counter the maths, it's difficult to estimate how many suitors you might have in your life. In addition, the one you pick after skipping the first 37 percent might actually be a terrible person. What happens then if maths is used as a rule to love henceforth? Arguments can't be solved by calculating in percentages how much effort one partner has put in. 


More importantly, it's likely that more people marry their first sweetheart than look up the Internet on best ways to find love according to maths. Maths may make for an intriguing eyeglass through which to analyse patterns, but having an open heart and the courage to get out there to meet people will throw you more opportunities to make suitors and even a partner out of new friends. The best decision we could make for our love lives then is one that uses a rule that defies logic - following your heart. 


This article was first published on DUET magazine.