Why You’re Very Likely To Settle For A Spouse

Back in 2002, a computer scientist wrote a paper (PDF) in the May 2002 issue of The Annals of Improbable Research which lays out why he would likely never have a girlfriend. His findings, unfortunately, can be extended to most people:

  • Starting with the 5.6 billion people on Earth at the time, he counted — using census data and population statistics — only those who were female, lived in countries he would at least visit, were of appropriate age, were good-looking enough, smart enough, and not already taken and was left with some 118,000 women.
  • Of those, he estimated that less than 19,000 would actually like him back — 15.8655% of the available pool of eligible 118,000, representing those who thought his characteristics were more than one standard deviation above average.
  • If he were to go on a blind date with a girl around his age every week, it would take him about 67 years to stumble into a date with one of the 19,000 above. This calculation is actually flawed, because he forgot to remove the girls that are taken, so it would really “only” take him about 33 years to find someone. If he wrote this as a grad student at 24, he would be 57 at the time and not 91; but most people will have settled by then anyway.


From xkcd


Of course, the paper is unrealistic in at least three ways:

  1. People rarely go on blind dates, exactly because of the high failure rate. So if he would only go on dates with single girls he found attractive, his pool would shrink from roughly 65,000,000 to 744,000. He also doesn’t need to actually go on a date with the girl, just to ask her out: if she says no, that will weed out the ones that aren’t interested. So if he just asks out one of those girls every week, it will take him 40 weeks to find one of the 19,000: less than a year and 32 years sooner, if he just avoids blind dates!
  2. But, except for the few that are prolific at networking, almost no one finds a different eligible girl every week. (At first blush, online dating seems like it would help in this aspect, but you are actually 12x more likely to get married this year if you’re not on match.com.) So using the more reasonable figure of one date request per month, the 40 dates would take him just over 3 years — still not bad!
  3. Except that his model is much too simplistic: it assumes the only criteria people use when selecting a spouse are availability, age, beauty and intelligence. If that were true, everyone would marry their best friend of the opposite sex. In reality, chemistry plays a much larger role than anything else, and similarity is probably second: most successful couples have common interests (movies, music, vacations) and common beliefs (religious, political, parenting). Using political affiliation as an estimate, the similarity criterion would probably cut at least another half of the pool out, leaving him a little over 9,000 eligible girls. Chemistry would weed out most of the rest, bringing to total down to just a couple of thousand eligible bachelorettes. To find one of them out of the 744,000 available would take him 372 date requests, which at once per month would take… 31 years!

And so, we’re back to being somewhere in your 50s by the time you find a soulmate. If you’re the type that always picks the right number in roulette, maybe you’ll be lucky and find a special someone after 37 tries instead of 370. And if not, maybe it’ll take you 500. But long, long before that, you will have probably thrown in the towel, started dating someone you don’t hate, and settled for less than you would’ve liked.


So how do you avoid settling? You can hope for the best and pray that you’re lucky, or prepare for the worst and become prolific at networking. Meet anyone and everyone; ask the eligible ones on a date, ignore the people you don’t like, and befriend the rest (you might meet someone awesome through them). If you meet one new potential date every week, chances are it’ll take a little over seven years to find someone pretty perfect for you. And that’s just by random meetings — if you focus on places, activities and friends that draw people from a particular demographic you’re interested in (e.g., going to happy hour at classy places to meet guys in their late 20s who have decent jobs), you can find your soulmate in a fraction of time. Also, just say no to blind dates.

From The Annals of Improbable Research (PDF), via Neatorama

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