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Full Transcript: Hannah Fry on The Mathematics of Love at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity

Hannah Fry

Here is the full transcript of mathematician Hannah Fry’s TEDx Talk: The Mathematics of Love at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The mathematics of love by Hannah Fry at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity


Thank you very much. So, yes, I’m Hannah Fry. I am a mathematician. And today I want to talk to you about the mathematics of love. Now, I think that we can all agree that mathematicians are famously excellent at finding love. 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 the perfect partner.

Now, in my favorite paper on the subject, which is entitled, “Why I Don’t Have a Girlfriend” — Peter Backus tries to rate his chances of finding love. Now, Peter’s not a very greedy man. Of all of the available women in the U.K., all Peter’s looking for is somebody who lives near him, somebody in the right age range, somebody with a university degree, somebody he’s likely to get on well with, somebody who’s likely to be attractive, somebody who’s likely to find him attractive. And comes up with an estimate of 26 women in the whole of the UK. It’s not looking very good, is it Peter?

Now, just to put that into perspective, that’s about 400 times fewer than the best estimates of how many intelligent extraterrestrial life forms there are. And it also gives Peter a 1 in 285,000 chance of bumping into any one of these special ladies on a given night out. I’d like to think that’s why mathematicians don’t really bother going on nights out anymore.

The thing is that I personally don’t subscribe to such a pessimistic view. Because I know, just as well as all of you do, that love doesn’t really work like that. Human emotion isn’t neatly ordered and rational and easily predictable. But I also know that that doesn’t mean that mathematics hasn’t got something that it can offer us because, love, as with most of life, is full of patterns and mathematics is ultimately all about the study of patterns. Patterns from predicting the weather to the fluctuations in the stock market, to the movement of the planets or the growth of cities. And if we’re being honest, none of those things are exactly neatly ordered and easily predictable, either.

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Because I believe that mathematics is so powerful that it has the potential to offer us a new way of looking at almost anything, even something as mysterious as love. And so, to try to persuade you of how totally amazing, excellent and relevant mathematics is, I want to give you my top three mathematically verifiable tips for love.

Okay, so Top Tip number 1: How to win at online dating. OK. So my favorite online dating website is OkCupid, not least because it was started by a group of mathematicians. Now, because they’re mathematicians, they have been collecting data on everybody who uses their site for almost a decade. And they’ve been trying to search for patterns in the way that we talk about ourselves and the way that we interact with each other on an online dating website. And they’ve come up with some seriously interesting findings.

But my particular favorite is that it turns out that on an online dating website, how attractive you are does not dictate how popular you are, and actually, having people think that you’re ugly can work to your advantage. Let me show you how this works. OK. In a thankfully voluntary section of OkCupid, you are allowed to rate how attractive you think people are on a scale between 1 and 5. Now, if we compare this score, the average score, to how many messages a selection of people receive, you can begin to get a sense of how attractiveness links to popularity on an online dating website.

Now this is the graph that the OkCupid guys have come up with. And the important thing to notice is that it’s not totally true that the more attractive you are, the more messages you get. OK, maybe a bit of a trend there. But the question arises then of what is it about people up here who are so much more popular than people down here, even though they have the same score of attractiveness? And the reason why is that it’s not just straightforward looks that are important.

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So let me try to illustrate their findings with an example. So if you take someone like Portia de Rossi. Now everybody agrees that Portia de Rossi is a very beautiful woman. Nobody thinks that she’s ugly, but she’s not a supermodel, either. If you compare Portia de Rossi to someone like Sarah Jessica Parker, now, a lot of people, myself included, I should say, think that Sarah Jessica Parker is seriously fabulous and possibly one of the most beautiful creatures to have ever have walked on the face of the Earth.

But some other people, i.e., most of the Internet, seem to think that she looks a bit like a horse. Now, I think that if you ask people how attractive they thought Sarah Jessica Parker or Portia de Rossi were, and you ask them to give them a score between 1 and 5, I reckon that they’d average out to have roughly the same score. But the way that people would vote would be very different. So Portia’s scores would all be clustered around the 4 because everybody agrees that she’s very beautiful, whereas Sarah Jessica Parker completely divides opinion. There’d be a huge spread in her scores. And actually it’s this spread that counts. It’s this spread that makes you more popular on an online Internet dating website.

So what that means then is that if some people think that you’re attractive, you’re actually better off having some other people think that you’re a massive minger. That’s much better than everybody just thinking that you’re the cute girl next door.

Now, I think this begins makes a bit more sense when you think in terms of the people who are sending these messages. So let’s say that you think somebody’s attractive, but you suspect that other people won’t necessarily be that interested. That means there’s less competition for you and it’s an extra incentive for you to get in touch. Whereas compare that to if you think somebody is attractive but you suspect that everybody is going to think they’re attractive. Well, why would you bother humiliating yourself, let’s be honest?

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Here’s where the really interesting part comes. Because when people choose the pictures that they use on an online dating website, they often try to minimize the things that they think some people will find unattractive. So the classic example is people who are, perhaps, a little bit overweight deliberately choosing a very cropped photo, or bald men, for example, deliberately choosing pictures where they’re wearing hats. But actually this is the opposite of what you should do if you want to be successful. You should really, instead, play up to whatever it is that makes you different, even if you think that some people will find it unattractive. Because the people who fancy you are just going to fancy you anyway, and the unimportant losers who don’t, well, they only play up to your advantage.

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