Coffee House Readings #5:
The Mathematics of Love 2


How much can math tell us about love? Turns out, quite a bit. Love is full of patterns, as life itself. And math is the science to understand these patterns.

In her TED Book, Hannah Fry applies mathematical concepts to human relationships in a playful manner, and by doing so succeeds in her mission to make people more interested in math. After reading her book, I definitely am.

Understanding the patterns of love can’t hurt in our search for happiness. After all,“choosing a partner is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in your lifetime – so much of your future happiness rests on whom you pick to settle down with.” So, no pressure. 😉

The mathematical concepts Fry illustrates in her book start out quite easy to understand and get more complex over the course of the book. But by then, your brain is already in math-mode and it gets easier and easier to understand mathematical problem-solving.

Mathematical solutions to the Dating Game

Fry starts out by calculating the chances of finding love. Math proves what most of us already suspected intuitively: Being picky is by far the worst thing you can do when you are single. As Fry puts it: “As reasonable as it is to limit your search to a spider-loving, ink-free peace hater, the more deal-breakers you have the less likely you are to find love.”

When it comes to beauty Fry illustrates that, while we do have a preference for an average face shape and facial symmetry (these features suggest a healthy immune system), everybody still has a very unique ideal; which affirms the old saying that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, a mathematical concept called the “decoy effect” can increase your chances of getting viewed as beautiful: the presence of an irrelevant alternative changes how we view our options. That’s why, when going to a party, you should always take a friend with you that is similar-looking to you, but slightly less attractive. You will get noticed more than if you had gone out alone. Game theory, on the other hand, suggests that it’s not always best to go for the one person at a party you are the most attracted to. Also, math shows that you end up far better off if you take the initiative and risk potential rejection than if you sit around and wait until someone approaches you.
“So aim high, and aim frequently: the maths says so.”, Fry sums up.

Beware of flawed assumptions

In “The Mathematics of Love” Hannah Fry demonstrates how to have lots of fun with mathematical theories and equations, but she also doesn’t fail to point out that the success of algorithms (which are, by definition, a series of logical steps to perform a task, just like a recipe) depends on the assumptions one makes in the beginning. If the assumption is wrong, the recipe will fail and the result will end up being inedible. Game theory applied to the Dating Game, for example, is based on the assumption that men are constantly trying to trick women into having sex with them, and women are desperately trying to trick men into marrying them. As we all know, life is not that simple.

Besides the danger of flawed assumptions, there’s always the risk that a company, whose algorithm you were relying on, is currently lying to you: just like OkCupid did when they told people, who were not at all compatible according to their algorithm, that they were indeed a perfect match (We experiment on human beings!). Even OkCupid, which has one of the best matching algorithms out there, had to admit that they could not calculate long-term compatibility. Another important thing to keep in mind, when considering matching algorithms as a way to find a suitable partner, is that these algorithms depend on the information people feed them. Again, the recipe may rest upon false assumptions. Because even if they are not plainly lying on their online profiles, most people just don’t know what they really want until they find it.

Calculating happily ever after

One example, that I particularly enjoyed, is the way Fry compares relationships to a mathematical problem called “the prisoner’s dilemma”. Cooperation strategy tells us the following: You should always start off by being cooperative. But you should not allow yourself to be exploited by bad behavior. As soon as a bad deed is dealt with, you should be forgiving and return to being cooperative. The prisoner’s dilemma clearly shows that cooperation is the best strategy when it comes to relationships. Who would have thought?

Math can not only help our dating life, it even tells us when to settle down. The mathematical concept behind this is called the “optimal stopping theory”.

“Spend a bit of time playing the field when you’re young, rejecting everyone you meet as serious life-partner material until you’ve got a feel for the marketplace. Then, once that phase has passed, pick the next person that comes along who’s better than everyone you met before.”

Mathematically speaking, the formula looks like this:

Optimal stopping theory

Optimal stopping theory (Source: Wikipedia, Secretary problem)

If you don’t want to solve this one on your own, don’t worry: Hannah Fry has already calculated it for you in her book. Or, you could watch her TED Talk on this subject.

The best Viennese Coffee House to read this book in

When you are reading a book about love, there’s no better place in Vienna to do it in than CafĂ© Himmelblau. This tiny CafĂ© in the 18th district, right at Kutschkermarkt, is lovingly decorated with a lot of attention to detail. Go there to try their buttered bread with avocado, and if you get the feeling that all of this searching for love stuff is getting too confusing, their cakes are awesome too.

Café Himmelblau

Café Himmelblau

Photo Credits: Verena Ehrnberger

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2 thoughts on “Coffee House Readings #5:
The Mathematics of Love

  • Brigitte Haberl

    That book was a seriously fun read- and I’m not a nerd AT ALL. I could hardly stop reading. And it reveals really interesting sides that we would probably never consider thinking about…awesome!

    • Verena Ehrnberger

      It really offers a whole new perspective on love. 🙂 And I just love how she explains all those mathematical truths in such a funny way, and always with a grain of salt.