The Mathematics of Love

A couple of days ago as part of Oxford Literary Festival I went to a talk by UCL mathematician Hannah Fry on The Mathematics of Love: The Search for the Ultimate Equation. Personable, interesting and accessible, Fry is like the Jamie Oliver of maths. If Jamie Oliver were wearing an ‘Emily Blunt as Emily in the Devil Wears Prada’ skinsuit.


Applying behavioural stats to love and dating is fascinating, because it helps to explain so much about why we act the way we do…as well as highlight the forces which maths just cannot quantify. There were some great tongue-in-cheek takeaways from Fry’s talk (though I’m not sure everyone got the tongue-in-cheek part…like the girl sitting beside me who spent the hour manically scribbling notes in a rhinestone-pocked notebook and tweaking her Tinder profile), such as:

Get rid of the checklist

Fry noted that studies of couples match-made on the basis of political beliefs, hobbies, like and dislikes etc. consistently find that these superficial shared criteria aren’t predictors of happy or long-term relationships. To dismiss people for not fitting an overly-specific bill is thus unproductive. I still think it’s valid to not want to date someone who, say, wears a turtleneck (IMO, solely the preserve of adolescents hiding hickeys, Scandi ski instructors and blunt-fringed arts students) but I take her point that not every habit or trait speaks to the core of a person’s humanity.

I think this is something most people realise after splashing around in the dating pool for a while. As a whippersnapper who spent too much time glued to romcoms, I probably had a census-length list of checkboxes (like this guy). Now, my checklist is simply:

  • Intellectually curious but not intellectually combative
  • Never points out to someone that they look embarrassed or uncomfortable
  • Appreciates wordplay, does not employ gratuitous egg-puns (eggcellent, eggxactly…blergh)
  • Reads (or at least does not refer to libraries as ‘mausoleums of leather-bound asswipes’)

The Decoy Effect

Fry talked about the power of a marketing ploy called the decoy effect. In the consumer world, this might manipulate people into buying a large popcorn at the movies by setting the prices at $3.50 (small), $5.50 (medium) and $6.00 (large). No-one in their right mind is going to buy the medium when they could get a large for 50c more; it serves as a decoy to push us into spending $6.00. Moreover, where the small and large might have been equally attractive options, the mere presence of the medium as a slightly worse version of the large pushes people towards it.

Adding nuance to the obvious ‘don’t have a wingman/wingwoman who’s more attractive than you’, the decoy effect suggests that if you’re at a group shindig (assuming everyone is around same level of attractiveness), you can better your odds of appearing the most attractive option by bringing a slightly uglified version of yourself (a dowdy almost-doppleganger).

Unfortunately, I’ve always had incredibly attractive friends (and compared to my cousin and sister, I’m definitely the Mary Bennet), which I’m going to assume is why I don’t get approached much. I’m sure it has nothing to do with my resting catbum bitchface or wall-hugging awkwardness…


Anyway, Fry had a lot of other interesting insights, many of which you can check out in her TEDTalk or book.

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