Matchmaking maths holds the key to online love

Sweet nothings: Does Cupid’s bow and arrow or an equation explain attraction?

Online dating sites are thriving, and their methods are now so advanced that they match couples by using mathematical formulae. Can analysing data result in the perfect date?

Today around 2,745,000 flower gifts will be received, 37 million dinner dates will be enjoyed or endured, and the number of text messages will soar by 11 million. In Indonesia, sales of chocolates will double and in the United States there are expected to be 220,000 proposals of marriage – ten percent of the annual total.

But while the traditional Valentine’s Day diamond ring may delight some, the ingenious maths behind modern matchmaking is even more dazzling.

Dating websites are booming in the UK. Six million Britons visit them each year, and in 2013, a study reported that more than a third of people who married in the US between 2005 and 2012 met their partner online. Perhaps surprisingly, the key to the success of online dating lies in clever calculations.

Dating sites rely on algorithms: sets of instructions which inform a machine what to do with certain information. Online dating sites ask users questions about their habits, beliefs and lifestyle choices and the computer runs the answers to find possible suitors.

At one site, OKCupid, users are given a numerical value for the answer they pick to questions such as ‘how important is it that your potential partner is organised?’ The processor then calculates how well a user scores against another’s search criteria. But it gets more sophisticated: the algorithm can tell if a user’s preferences are not fully frank: for example, if someone says they don’t want to date people with dark hair but checks out their profiles anyway, the site will suggest some brunettes.

Algorithms are also behind the mobile phone app, Tinder, which makes matches based on people’s Facebook pictures.

But the lasting value of online dating has been disputed. A 2012 study by researchers in the United States concluded that no algorithm could predict an enduring partnership. The study concluded that dating sites ‘are in a poor position to know how two partners will grow and mature over time.’

Stupid Cupid

It is heartwarming to know that love can be explained by a formula, say some. Studies suggest that people who meet online are slightly less likely to divorce and they claim to be happier in their marriages – proof that maths can result in true love. Besides, online dating is essential for those with busy lives and limited opportunities to meet a mate.

What rubbish, retort the romantics. Maths is cold, impersonal and abstract, whereas true love is emotional, messy and unpredictable. While these algorithms might increase the probability of introducing people with similar interests, they cannot reproduce the magic of attraction. No one can ever fully understand the mysteries of love, so how can a computer?

You Decide

  1. Is love a mystery, or simply a mathematical equation?
  2. Are dating sites a good invention or a bad one?

Activities

  1. Name some of the most famous pairs of lovers in fiction. Can you adapt a storyline so that they meet on an online dating site?
  2. Watch the first video link in Become An Expert, and identify five ways in which algorithms are used in everyday life.

Some People Say...

“All you need is love.’The Beatles”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do I need to be good at maths to find romance?
Fear not – if you’re more into Shakespeare’s sonnets than Einstein’s equations, you’ll be just as well equipped for navigating love’s peaks and troughs. But a good understanding of algorithms could be useful for a future career. Many industries use them, such as banks and intelligence agencies.
Aren’t dating sites a bit tragic?
One in five relationships in the UK now starts on the internet. Regardless of whether you think they’re good or bad, it is undeniable that technology is having a dramatic impact on our love lives; even popular culture is fascinated with the relationship between the two. A new film released today, ‘Her’, centres on a man who falls in love with his computer.

Word Watch

Study
Conducted by the American National Academy of Sciences in 2013.
Algorithms
According to Dr Panos Parpas from Imperial College London: ‘It's a bit like how a recipe helps you to bake a cake. Instead of having generic flour or a generic oven temperature, the algorithm will try a range of variations to produce the best cake possible from the options and permutations available.’
Tinder
Using Facebook profiles, the Tinder app gathers users' basic information to match potential candidates that are most likely to be compatible based on geographical location, number of mutual friends and common interests.
Researchers
A 2012 study by researchers led by Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel and published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Subjects

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