TEDx: “The Mathematics of Love”

Mathematician Hannah Fry shares top three tips for being successful in the search for love

It’s time to forget about that high school relationship, because the numbers say that the future is bright.

Tycho McManus/Staff Photographer

Hannah Fry, a mathematician and complexity scientist at the University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, discussed ‘the mathematics of love’ during her TEDx talk at Binghamton University.

“I think we can all agree that mathematicians are famously excellent at finding love,” Fry joked. “But it’s not just because of our dashing personalities, superior conversational skills and excellent pencil cases. It’s also because we’ve actually done an awful lot of work into the maths of how to find our favorite partner.”

Fry took the stage to share her love for math and her top three tips for finding love.

Her first tip, “how to win at online dating,” covered key steps to creating an OKCupid profile that gets attention. Fry chose OKCupid, she said, because it was created by mathematicians who studied the patterns that people follow when looking for partners.

She said that honesty is important when crafting an online profile.

“It turns out that on online dating websites, how attractive you are does not dictate how popular you are,” Fry said. “If you’re ugly, it can actually work to your advantage.”

To back up her point, Fry gave the example of actresses Portia de Rossi and Sarah Jessica Parker. De Rossi, she explained, is more likely to be considered very attractive by a large amount of people, while Parker is considered “seriously fabulous and possibly one of the most beautiful creatures that has ever walked the face of the earth” by some, and much less attractive by others.

“It’s this spread that counts,” Fry said. “It’s this spread that makes you more popular on an online Internet dating website. If some people think you’re attractive, you’re actually better off having some people think you’re a massive minger. That’s much better than everyone just thinking you’re just the cute girl next door.”

Fry said that though most people try and hide the aspects of their appearance that they feel others might find unappealing, they should actually show them off.

“You should play up whatever it is you think makes you different, even if you think some people will find it unattractive,” Fry said. “Because the people who fancy you will just fancy you anyway.”

Her second tip went over how a person might know when is the right time to settle down into a meaningful, long-term relationship.

She referenced a study called “Why I don’t have a girlfriend” by Peter Backus, where he used the Drake Equation — which is usually used to estimate the number of highly evolved civilizations that might exist in the Milky Way Galaxy — to find how many ideal mates he had in the U.K.

According to Fry, Backus’ answer of 26 was about 400 times smaller than the amount of intelligent extraterrestrial life forms there are.

She explained that in order for one to maximize their chances of finding an ideal partner, assuming they are searching from when they turn 15 to when they turn 35, is to reject every partner that shows up during the first 37 percent of that stretch in time, and to settle with the next person that appears who is better than all of his or her predecessors.

This procedure, which is called optimal stopping theory, is apparent in nature, according to Fry.

“In the wild, there are certain types of fish that follow this exact structure,” Fry said. “They reject all the fish that come up to them during the first 30 percent of the mating season. Then after that is finished, they accept the next fish that is bigger and burlier than those that had come before.”

Fry’s last tip for the audience was how to avoid divorce. She referenced work done by John Gottman, a scientist who, by studying dozens of variables in the relationships between couples, was able to predict with 90 percent accuracy whether or not they would get a divorce.

According to Fry, the couples with the healthiest relationships are not the ones who put up with each other the best, but instead are the ones who have the lowest negativity thresholds, meaning that they are most willing to be vocal with one another about what is bothering them.

“These are the couples that don’t let anything go unnoticed and allow each other some room to complain,” Fry explained. “These are the couples that continually try to repair their own relationship and have a much more positive outlook on their marriage.”

Fry ended her talk with a few hopeful words for the audience.

“I hope that for a few of you, a little bit of insight into the mathematics of love can persuade you to have a little bit more love for mathematics,” Fry said.


Pipe Dream sat down with Hannah Fry to discuss her work


Pipe Dream: Binghamton University is a long way from London. How did you end up giving a talk all the way in upstate New York?

Hannah Fry: I have a policy where I don’t like saying no to any opportunities. I actually received an e-mail a few months back, and I thought it was for a TED event in Birmingham. If you don’t know, Birmingham is a little shithole in England, like three hours out of the way. And I really didn’t want to go there. But, luckily, a few weeks later, I looked again and I realized that it was actually Binghamton in New York, and I got very excited. When someone offers to fly you out to New York to give a talk about mathematics, you can’t turn it down.

PD: How do you feel when you make trips to the U.S. and you hear people calling it ‘math’ instead of ‘maths’?

HF: [Laughs] I used to mind, you know? In the U.K., whenever you hear an American say ‘math’ people always turn away and whisper the ’s.’ I used to get really annoyed about it. But then I saw a video by Numberphile, which is this math YouTube channel, and they explained the origins of why the U.K. call it ‘maths’ and the States call it ‘math.’ And after that, I didn’t really mind it anymore. It turns out the U.K. is wrong!

PD: You now have a grand total of two TED Talks under your belt. How did you feel about the second one?

HF: It went better than the first, actually. I think that it was a better topic and I was better prepared. I was more experienced as well, which I think was important

PD: In your talk, you go over the mathematics of love and you bring in a lot of the work that you have done in a manner that engages the crowd. You brought up ‘optimal stopping theory,’ which is the theory that you don’t settle for a partner until after a certain period of time has passed, and then once that period of time has passed you settle with the next best candidate who presents himself or herself. One question I have to ask: Did you follow that theory?

HF: [Laughs] Well I suppose I did subconsciously. I think that because I’m ginger — and in the U.K. people don’t like ginger people very much — I think I automatically had people think I’m a massive minger. But yeah, subconsciously everyone does a little bit of optimal stopping theory. Everyone has a bit of time where they get to know what’s available to them and what the market’s like. I think that I — like everybody — sort of did that automatically.

PD: You talked a lot about online dating websites and the keys to successful online dating. Did you online date?

HF: I have online dated in the past. But, yeah, no. I didn’t know about [the keys].

PD: Does ‘optimal stopping theory’ change if you’re searching for a partner online or if it’s in your everyday life?

HF: The two of them don’t necessarily link in together. Let’s say that you have a number of people who you can date over your lifetime. The optimal stopping theory is: Given that you have dated lots of people or you have the ability to date lots of people, how do you know when to stop? When I was talking about online dating, I just wanted to show the audience how to maximize their chances of getting a date.

PD: Tell me a little bit about what mathematics means to you.

HF: Oh it’s everything! [Laughs] But if I’m honest, right, you know how poetry or music sometimes manages to communicate things that are not not possible through words? It sounds quite cheesy, but that’s basically how I feel about mathematics. I think what when you play with an equation, you’re kinda seeing into the structure of the universe, or the structure of the world that is not possible to describe in any other way. I think that when you’ve had that experience, or when you’ve had that kind of lightbulb moment where you’re like ‘this is the structure of the universe,’ there’s nothing that really compares to it.

I think that maths is really important. I think that lots of other subjects like physics and chemistry and engineering people have a natural appreciation for. But people don’t have a natural appreciation for maths. I think that people at school had a really hard time with it and it’s got a really bad reputation. People are willing to say ‘oh, I’m bad at maths’ in a way that they would never say ‘oh, I’m bad at writing’ or ‘I’m bad at reading.’ I think it’s really important that people see how important and relevant maths is. But I want to take it away from just talking about the abstract. I think that maths communication should be about sharing how relevant it is in the real world.