Science has the secret to finding your perfect date online – ignore the first 37 people you’re matched with (seriously)

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This week, the worlds of dating and science have been colliding in some rather interesting ways. Charly Lester finds that data crunching and mathematical theories can be sexy. Sort of

On Monday night, TV doctor Xand van Tulleken and mathematician Hannah Fry explored the science behind online dating for Horizon, a UK TV programme that mixes pop-science with serious-ish science. Lucky singleton Dr Xand was to be the guinea pig.

Firstly, Fry applied ‘optimal stopping theory’ to Xand’s Tinder choices in order to allow him to arrive at the best dating option while sifting through a number of sequential choices. Ready for the science bit? Don’t worry, it’s actually not boring or complicated, despite being a fully fledged mathematical theory. OST (see, abbreviate it and it’s instantly less snooze-inducing) suggests that to get the best choice from a sample of 100, you should reject the first 37 and then choose the next option that’s better than any of those first 37. And that’s pretty much it.

By applying this principle to dating and, well, people, the odds on the person you choose being the best potential partner of the bunch are a remarkable 37 per cent. Don’t ask us to prove the maths – just go with it.

Next, the team chatted to Professor Khalid Khan, from Queen Mary, University of London. Prof Khan has reviewed dozens of research papers on attraction and online dating, and has co-authored a book and research in medical journals exploring attributes of online dating profiles. Using his results, Khan managed to find a partner for his co-author (who had been single for seven years) within just three dates. Watch and learn, producers of Joe Millionaire, The Bachelorette, The Bachelor and all other dating shows.




Khan had some choice scientific advice for Dr Xand, including the following gems: choose an online profile username that starts with a letter close to the beginning of the alphabet, thus optimising your search visibility on the site – sneaky, sure, but you’re all going to go off and do it; plus, make sure you demonstrate courage and an ability to take risks on your profile.

Cupid Khan also warned Xand against coming across as too kind or nice. Why? His analysis of other scientific studies suggested that in the absence of familiarity, women prefer bravery over altruism. He also explained that it’s important to demonstrate humour, but without actually describing yourself as funny.

Finally, Xand’s married twin brother Chris undertook an MRI scan to illustrate the parts of the brain that were activated when you’re in love with someone. Interestingly, the scan showed that when you’re in love, not only is the ‘pleasure and reward’ section of your brain activated (sexily named the ventral tegmental area), but the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (oh, stop…), which controls logical reasoning, is deactivated. We quite literally become fools for love.


Dr Chris and Dr Xand being all medical and authoritative (Photo: YouTube/CBBC)


If, however, you’re a little light of pocket this month and can’t afford an MRI scanner before payday, fear not, as there’s further easily applicable science stuff being unearthed that might help you find love.

This time, you can thank researchers from the Open Lab section of Newcastle University’s Computing Science department (Open Lab studies human interactions with computer-based systems), who recently organised a speed dating event with a difference. Called ‘Metadating’ (see what they’ve done there?) the event was designed to investigate how we use data in social interactions, inspired by the data collected through wearable technology and smartphones.

Participants recorded a variety of information about themselves at their own choice, covering anything from walking pace to how many times they had recently called their mother to vices like booze and junk food. The lead author of the event, Chris Elsden, later explained that the participants could then be split into two groups: those who chose interesting and unusual data to break the ice; and others who stuck rigidly to the task and were more honest and accurate with the data they shared.


Break the ice and tell your date all about your breakfast (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


“As we collect more and more data about ourselves, we were interested in the future social life of data – how people might talk, share, make jokes, brag or even lie about their data,” Elsden explained. “We thought speed dating was the perfect way to investigate these future interactions.”

When asked by Science Daily about the research, Elsden claimed that a lot of information we measure about ourselves “is focused only on making us fitter, happier or more productive. But this can be really dry and mechanical …. What our study showed is that you can be creative with data, you can play around with the way you present it and use it to relate to other people … I’d like to see something like Instagram for data, where you could find new ways to design what your data says about you.”

I have to admit, I’m not convinced that the Metadating experiment teaches us anything we didn’t know. People have been bending the truth about themselves to seem more interesting for years, and in the same way we all know people look nothing like their Instagram photos, a similar filter for data about yourself just sounds like a fancy way to dress-up lying. Bar charts about your coffee consumption may break the ice in an awkward lab experiment, but I can’t see them becoming all the rage at (already awkward) real world speed dating events. But who knows, maybe I’ll be proven wrong and Metadating will be the next big thing. For now, I think I’ll stick to Tinder, remembering to swipe left for the first 37 options.

Read more about Charly Lester’s adventures in dating on her blog, 30 Dates.

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