Dating is a numbers game. And the number of people available and accessible to others while trying to find the one is higher than ever thanks to the prominence of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble. For many people, that presents a problem: the abundance of choice.
According to Pew Research Center, about 30 percent of Americans have used a dating app — including nearly half of all people between the ages of 18 to 29 years old. The majority of those users — about 56 percent, according to data collected by SurveyMoney — don't like these apps and view them negatively. But perhaps the perception would be different if they were viewed not as a lottery game where you're trying to find the right ticket against overwhelming odds but instead as a calculator that could help you get to the correct answer in your love equation. Dominik Czernia — a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Cracow, Poland — believes that the seemingly unsurmountable numbers of online dating don't have to overwhelm. Instead, they can work to your favor, as long as you know how to maximize your odds.
Enter the optimal stopping rule. It's a concept that goes by many names — the secretary problem, the sultan's dowry problem, the 37 percent rule, the googol game — but conceptually they are all the same, and they get to the very essence of one of the problems that online dating presents: when do we stop the dating dance and settle down with a partner?
The secretary problem, explained
In the "secretary problem," the question presents itself like this: you are an administrator who needs to hire a secretary out of a series of available candidates. You need to make your decision immediately after interviewing the candidate that you want to hire — there is no going back to previous options. But the fact that you have to make that decision means that you run the risk of missing out on a better candidate that you never got to interview. If you've spent any amount of time on dating apps, you're likely already starting to see how this problem applies to your experiences. As your matches start piling up, your prospects for a potential partner start to widen — and there are always more faces waiting for you to swipe left or right on, leading to a seemingly endless number of possibilities.
How the secretary problem applies to dating
How do you get yourself out of the endless cycle of swiping? According to Czernia, it is by applying principles of probability to your dating behaviors in order to optimize the likelihood that you find your ideal partner. Is it romantic? Absolutely not. Is it effective? Well, maybe.
Czernia has set up a "Dating Theory Calculator" that anyone can use in an attempt to improve their likelihood of meeting the best possible partner. It operates on a number of variables, allowing you to set a timeline for how long you'd like to take to find your dream partner, how many dates you're willing to go on, and how frequently you're willing to meet someone new. Through a bit of number crunching, the calculator will spit out the number of dates you'll need to go on in order to meet your perfect partner — or at least the best partner that you could ask for, given the information that you have.
No matter how long you decide that you're willing to look or how many dates you want to go on, there is one rule that you'll have to follow: rejecting people, even if they seem great. The first 37 percent of people that you date have to be rejected, no matter how well you connect with them. If you plan to go on 100 dates, that means you're going to cut things off with the first 37.
Consider this the calibration stage of your dating process. You're going to get a better idea of what you're looking for, what you require from a partner, and what you can sufficiently provide to meet your partner's needs during this time. This can be challenging because there is almost certainly going to be someone in this group that you click with and that you could potentially see a future with, but the math says they are less likely to be the one for you than the best person you find during the next portion of this process.
With the first 37 percent of your potential dates rejected, you have shrunk your potential dating pool and set a bar for what you're looking for. Now comes the good part: stopping. Keep in mind the best partner that you found in that 37 percent. As soon as you find a partner who you feel you are as or more compatible with than the best person in the rejected group, you go for it — whatever that may mean to you. The reason is pretty simple: they are the best person that you have met so far after going through the process of determining what exactly it is that you're looking for and what type of person you are most compatible with. The odds of you finding someone better than them after that point are diminishing, so this is your optimal stopping position. Once you've done this, give yourself a pat on the back: you've solved dating!
Optimizing the odds in your favor
Well, not really. As Czernia says, "The Dating Theory Calculator should be considered only as a suggestion." But by using it, you've at least given yourself the best opportunity to be successful at it. Czernia reasons that if you dated ten people and stopped at random or cut yourself off after any given potential partner, you'd have a 10 percent chance of picking the ideal person for you. By following this method, he reasons that you'll see a 40 percent increase in your odds.
It's not perfect and there is a chance that things don't work out in your favor. "Since the optimal stopping problem is all about probability, there is, unfortunately, no possibility to [ensure you get your best possible match,]" Czernia tells Mic. If you meet your ideal partner in that first 37 percent of dates, you'll be stuck searching for someone who matches that level of connection ad infinitum. There's also a chance that your first dates are so bad and the bar is set so low that you'll simply settle for the first decent match that you find — which could mean that you miss out on your perfect partner because you stopped dating too soon. "Before you settle down with one of the first partners you date with, you should go ahead and start meeting other people," Czernia says. There is no guarantee that you can prevent these possibilities, but you can play the odds in order to get the best possible outcome.
How dating apps work against you
If this all feels cold and calculating and a little dehumanizing, well, you're not wrong. It's all of those things — at least to some degree. But so is online dating as a whole, and it is largely that way by design. Dating apps in particular have managed to gamify the dating process in a way that feels like it is meant to keep people trapped in an endless loop of matching but never allowing them to actually get off the platform. Apps like Tinder actually don't have motivation to get people off the platform — they want to keep people locked in for as long as possible. These apps achieve that by constantly providing new matches and potential partners, making it feel like there are always other, potentially better options out there. These expanded numbers of possibilities lead to people more harshly scrutinizing their matches. As the Association for Psychological Science found in a recent study, reviewing more candidates for a position without face-to-face meetings leads to people being more judgmental and dismissing those who fall short of perfect, even if they might be more than good enough under other circumstances.
These apps are often playing the fears of the optimal stopping rule against you, making you feel like you should just keep dating around so you don't miss out. And the fact is that in reality, the apps don't provide you with that much of an advantage in actually meeting people. According to a study that focused on more casual relationships, people on Tinder did not have more success in finding these arrangements. Simply having matches does not mean that you're connecting with those people or meeting them in real life — though you can use these conversations as a way to gauge your likes and dislikes. "If you’re using dating apps or websites, you’re probably meeting many more potential partners than if you would normally," Czernia notes.
Amplifying these problems is the fact that people aren't always entirely truthful in their dating profiles. According to a New York Times report, 81 percent of people misrepresent at least some piece of information about themselves in their online profile. These may be inconsequential or they may completely change the way that people feel about one another. "To avoid that, you should go outside, meet your partner, make a real conversation, and have a good time together in some cozy place," Czernia recommends. "Only then you can start paying attention to the things you care about the most."
Dating might just be a numbers game, but there's are diminishing returns on simply allowing the numbers to continue to pile up. Czernia's calculator gives you the math to show you how to break the cycle and put a stop to the endless scroll of faces and swipes that dating apps provide. Just don't tell your partner about it, they may not be thrilled about being the answer to a math equation.