Have you ever made the promise to a friend, “If we’re not married by age 40, I’ll marry you?” What if Binghamton University found the perfect friend with whom you should make that pact? Believe it or not, many college campuses have some form of this, and it’s known as “the Marriage Pact.” I didn’t hear about this from any friends from other schools or from a podcast about relationships, but rather the NPR podcast, “Planet Money.” The podcast described the complicated and exciting process at Stanford University near finals week when students eagerly await the results of their Marriage Pact surveys. It sounds like how I waited for my bid card along with many of my friends at the end of Panhellenic recruitment on campus this semester. Everyone’s refreshing their emails and waiting for the match to be revealed.
So back to that complicated and exciting process, I’ll give some more context as to what it looks like. When students fill out the marriage pact survey, they answer a series of questions that go into an algorithm that’s meant to determine compatibility. There are some fundamental questions such as sexuality, political affiliation, religion, food preferences, values and things like that. Then there are some more interesting and in-depth questions, such as how kinky you like your sex or how many kids you want. Some of these are easy to answer now, as lots of people might know how kinky they are in college, what political direction they lean toward or if they want to raise their children with religion in mind. But the whole number-of-kids question would make me stop and really think twice for a few reasons. How am I supposed to know that before turning 20? Secondly — and in my eyes, more importantly — is my answer, or the mere fact that I have an answer for that question, going to freak out my match? I’m 19, and most of the guys my age would be horrified by this question as far as I’m concerned. Yet, there have been almost 16,000 successful matches made and one actual marriage according to the Marriage Pact website.
Liam McGregor, the designer of the Marriage Pact, was in an economics course called “market design” taught by Professor Paul Milgrom, who won a Nobel Prize in economics. As part of the course, McGregor was assigned an essay discussing market design strategy, leading him to approach his professor with a different idea. He wanted to design a matching system for backup plan marriages among students on campus. As I learned when listening to that podcast episode, when there are markets for something that doesn’t cost money, like organs, residency programs or even love, matching systems work to allocate things instead of the normal supply-demand model for things with monetary value. McGregor then modified the Gale-Shapley algorithm — used in many instances for matching purposes — by removing its ranking system and keeping the compatibility questions. It seems like it worked because, as it turns out, 58 percent of the student body partook in the marriage pact by the end of the week.
When I heard about the marriage pact, it was weird for me because I couldn’t imagine experiencing this myself for a number of reasons. The first reason is that I hope to, one day, very far away from today, marry a man. I don’t see many of the college men I know seeking their wives at the moment. I’m not the first to say college guys are pretty noncommittal for the most part. The second reason is that I don’t really see myself searching for my husband today. Not that I’m noncommittal myself, but I just don’t need that level of commitment — you know, till-death-do-us-part, legally binding, sometimes-take-your-last-name-type of commitment, quite yet. Like I said, I don’t need to find him today, maybe not even in college. I don’t think I’d reject someone who I knew was perfect for me, but I never even thought about working this hard to find my perfect match in college. The idea of being single after college is common and doesn’t really scare me.
That being said, would the results pressure me to like my match or want to marry them before our time runs out? Are the questions asked on the survey those I would want to ask my perfect match? Would I want to know the answer based on an algorithm and not have the romantic, happenstance meeting? These are some of the many things I would want to know before suggesting that we make this happen at BU.
I feel like the weirdest thing about this whole thing, on top of the fact that it exists on college campuses of all places, is that economics majors came up with this. If I were to guess, I would’ve probably thought psychology majors, sociology, anthropology, human development or those who study disciplines related to people would be the ones to come up with this. The Stanford Daily cites the origin of this idea as “an economics homework question referencing the Nobel prize-winning stable marriage algorithm, coupled with observations of Stanford’s dating scene.”
I’m not sure if math is the way to go for this sort of thing — can algorithms understand the intricacies of human behavior and love? Is it still romantic when it successfully matches two people? Maybe not, but this is a backup anyway, right? Anyways, the Marriage Pact is not the only tool that uses a mathematical algorithm to match people. Hinge actually also uses the Gale-Shapley Algorithm, Bumble has an algorithm of its own and Tinder uses a “desirability score,” actually penalizing people for swiping left too much, and the list goes on.
One of my qualms was that this is happening during college, a time in which I’d say a large portion of the students is not anywhere near looking toward marriage. Liam McGregor addressed this by saying that “students are focused on academics and finding a job, but they’re also in the best place they’ll ever be to find someone to marry. And they may not find someone.” I honestly don’t think he’s wrong. For many of us, this is the prime of our lives and due to the college environment, most of us are close to one another and don’t have to travel much in order to meet someone.
So although I’m not the end-all-be-all decision-maker — far from it, in fact — I’d like to share my conclusion about whether or not we should bring it to our campus. Honestly, why not? I feel like we may as well have something fun to look forward to, and it doesn’t hurt anyone because it’s not mandatory. It seems like something that will change with time. I’d imagine that the survey can probably be updated to be more or less sensitive based on the political climate and the zeitgeist, but time will tell for that because it’s relatively new. I guess it’s nice to have a safety net, and anyway, lots of participants just end up meeting people that are good matches to be friends, in which case you don’t have to wait until you aren’t married by whatever age you choose in order to start any kind of relationship with them.
Ariel Wajnrajch is a sophomore majoring in psychology.