Love between the numbers

Mar 10, 2015, 08:02 IST | The Guide Team

In her book, The Mathematics of Love, Hannah Fry deciphers patterns of love and relationships to prove that numbers and equations can help find true love, avoid divorce, navigate the world of online dating, and a lot more

How important is beauty?
...There are some mathematical ideas that really do seem to be linked to beauty... One of the first to be discovered was our preference for an average face shape. Since the 1800s, researchers have known that overlaying images of lots of faces from a particular ethnic group will lead to an average face that is widely considered attractive. Each ethnic group has a different ideal, but essentially, once you've ironed out the oversized chins, lopsided ears and lengthy foreheads, what you're left with is a completely average (if unexciting) hottie.

The Mathematics of Love
Pic courtesy/The Mathematics of love, illustration by Christine Rosch

The theory is that when looking for a partner, we tend to dislike unusual face shapes for fear that they mask a weird genetic mutation that we'd like to avoid passing on to our future offspring.

Thoughts of the health and success of our future children is a recurring theme when judging for beauty. Facial symmetry, too, stands out as an important factor for beauty, and people with naturally symmetrical faces consistently score highly on attractiveness surveys.

But it seems that when picking out symmetrical faces as beautiful, we're doing nothing more than validating an underlying clean bill of health.

....Likewise, there is a broad preference for male faces with strong brows and well-defined jaws. The significance of these traits seems to lie in their connection to the prevalence of male and female hormones.

Online dating
An algorithm is similar to a recipe: a series of logical steps that can be used to perform a task. In this case, the OkCupid algorithm takes the questionnaire members fill in on joining and, through a series of logical steps, it generates a score between couples to illustrate how good a match they are.

...But although 15 per cent of the duped-but-ill-suited couples engaged in conversation with each other after initial contact, the figure for people who really were a 90 per cent match (and not just told they were) was a surprisingly similar 17 per cent. The well-matched couples didn't really get on any better with each other.

The tiny margins between these two numbers mean the OkCupid matching algorithm has its limits in being able to predict the real success of a match. Of course it's easier to engage in a conversation if you have more in common, but only just. And it won't necessarily help you in the long run.

This isn't a flaw in OkCupid's science. Their algorithm is doing exactly what it was designed to do: deliver singles who meet your specifications. The problem here is that you don't really know what you want. So an algorithm that can accurately predict your compatibility with another person simply does not exist yet.

What are the chances of finding love?
The reality is that when people are single and looking for a prospective partner, they often add in all sorts of must-haves or must-not-haves that dramatically reduce their chances. I have a very close friend who ended a potentially fruitful courtship simply because the gentleman wore black shoes with blue jeans to a date.

I have another chum who insists that he cannot date a woman who uses exclamation marks! (That one is for him.) And how many friends do we all know who will not consider someone unless they are driven enough, or gorgeous enough, or rich enough?

Being good on paper doesn't mean anything in the long run. There's no point in restricting your search to people who match everything on your checklist, because you're just setting yourself an impossible challenge. Instead, pick a couple of things that are really important and then give people a chance. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

How to Live Happily Ever After

In relationships where both partners consider themselves as happy, bad behaviour is dismissed as unusual: 'He's under a lot of stress at the moment' or 'No wonder she's grumpy, she hasn't had a lot of sleep lately'. Couples in this enviable state will have a deep-seated positive view of their partner, which is only reinforced by any positive behaviour: 'These flowers are lovely. He's always so nice to me' or 'She's just such a nice person, no wonder she did that'.

In negative relationships, however, the situation is reversed. Bad behaviour is considered the norm: 'He's always like that' or 'Yet again. She's just showing how selfish she is'. Instead, it's the positive behaviour that is considered unusual: 'He's only showing off because he got a pay rise at work. It won't last' or 'Typical. She's doing this because she wants something'.

...The most successful relationships are the ones with a really low negativity threshold. In those relationships, couples allow each other to complain, and work together to constantly repair the tiny issues between them. In such a case, couples don't bottle up their feelings, and little things don't end up being blown completely out of proportion.

This isn't the end of the story, however. Living happily ever after isn't just about being comfortable complaining. For a start, it's worth adding that the language you use in your conversation should still be open and understanding, and there's always more room to respect your partner as an individual, rather than allowing yourself to feel like the victim of their behaviour.

The Mathematics of Love, Hannah Fry, Simon & Schuster UK, Rs 350. Available at leading bookstores.
The Mathematics of Love, Hannah Fry, Simon & Schuster UK, Rs 350. Available at leading bookstores.

How to Optimise Your Wedding
The process starts with a list of all the potential invitees, grouped as couples or families and ordered by how much you want them to be there on your big day...

Put this list in a spreadsheet, with the name of the group in the first column and the number of people the group represents in the next.

The next step is to decide how likely each group of people is to actually show up if you invite them. Think about how far away people live. What else is going on in their lives?

Think in terms of a percentage but write it down as a decimal. For example, your close friend from home and her boyfriend might be 95% likely to attend, so they would collectively get a score of 0.95. This makes up the third column of your spreadsheet.

Multiplying the second column — the number of people in each group — by their score in the third column gives you a fourth column containing the 'expected' number of people who will RSVP with a yes.

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