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Dating Tips from Mathematicians

~ March, 2021 ~ There’s a scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind, where the mathematician John Nash and his colleagues are about to party with a group of girls. Nash, the protagonist, goes into a lengthy mathematical explanation when informing his nerdy friends, in essence, why he should be the only one hitting on the hot girl.

Dating can be looked at as an optimization problem, so it’s to be expected that mathematicians would approach it as such.

It’s all fiction, of course. In the real world, no nerd would ever aim for the hot girl. But more seriously, real people don’t usually decide on their romantic partners without involving their emotions.

Emotions are what make us human, and finding a partner is rarely a rational task. And to be fair, the mathematicians I know approach dating just like everyone else: behaving awkwardly in the beginning and becoming somewhat more natural with experience.

I wrote about how lining up in a queue is a psychology problem that most of us think of as an optimization issue. Now, we’ll see how dating is an optimization problem disguised as an emotional roller coaster.

Riches in the niches

In the movie, the “pigeon scene” is a good excuse for introducing “the bargaining problem,” one of John Nash’s key achievements in game theory.

But Andy Warhol helps us understand the concept in a much simpler way. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (Fromasdf A to B and Back Again), the artist explains how living in New York City changes people. On beautiful, sunny days, Central Park gets so crowded that you can’t even see through the throng. On a rainy Sunday morning, however, no one wants to get out and walk the empty streets, so you can have them all to yourself.

As Warhol puts it, “Living in New York City gives people real incentives to want things that nobody else wants – to want all the leftover things. There are so many people here to compete with that changing your tastes to what other people don’t want is your only hope of getting anything.”

Opportunity changes people’s preferences and tastes. The world is a dynamic marketplace, where supply-and-demand changes constantly.

Finding a romantic partner is not just about your own checklist either. It’s also about everyone else’s. Everything is changing all the time, which, of course, is just another kind of disaster. Culture matters, the zeitgeist matters, and our friends’ opinions matter – sometimes more than our own.

Lists, checked

Online dating has become ubiquitous in the past two decades, and thanks to those services, a plethora of data and research is available today. Data is great because data doesn’t lie; it allows researchers to look at what people do, rather than at what they say.

In most studies, researchers found, well, nothing surprising. On average, women prefer a partner who’s seeking a long-term relationship. Men want to be taller than women, and women want them to be taller too. They also care more about dating people with more money, and pretty much nobody wants a really chubby partner.

People with children prefer people with children. Divorced women prefer divorcés (which is great news for divorced men because single women will mostly avoid them).

And, most importantly, as it turns out, very different people seem to have very similar preferences in this ever-changing marketplace.

Today, a person’s checklist of preferences may include dozens of items: from a partner’s holiday destinations to their favorite movie or the color of their hair. If we continue down this path, literally no one will check every box on anyone’s checklist.

Instead of listing our preferences, it is better to find a few cornerstones that would set up a match for the long term. For instance: Do we want to live in a big city, or on a farm? How many children would we like to have?

The goal isn’t to build a huge checklist. The goal is to determine what your non-negotiables are and stay open to everything else. Whoever is most flexible has the most potential matches in the n-dimensional match game.

Love is a blind opportunist

Finding the perfect match depends on chance and preparation, and both of these factors can be helped along.

Our first homework assignment is to get our true preferences right, and that’s where emotions can be useful. Playing the observer’s role in our own life can help us discover our cornerstones.

And the next step is to be open to opportunities and to allow yourself to be surprised. You can be very much into one type of person, but if they don’t exist or you never meet them, that match is never going to happen. So figure out what you really, really want, and be open to experiencing something new. And maybe avoid the pickup line “I’ve got my ion you, baby.”

This story originally appeared here on


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