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Love by the Numbers

Algorithms or Luck? Love continues to mystify even as online dating services try to pin it down.

Once I heard a friend describe Love as a verb, it made perfect sense. It still does. This weekend, however, I heard the search for Love described not in terms of grammar, but in terms of math and science. This was a huge departure from my comfort zone and gave me reason enough to write about it.

First, a word about – Valentine’s Day. Love gets a kick start every February 14. It's the day we try to squeeze some display of Love into a 24 hour span. Valentine's Day has the laser focus of New Year's Eve in that we feel obliged to act on it because of its place on the calendar. We are pressed to feel/experience Love simply because the calendar says so.

Of course, we can express love anytime, anywhere for any reason. February 14 just defines the effort, albeit a little unnaturally. Sprinkling some math and science onto this equation makes it even moreunnatural. Yes? Not necessarily.

This weekend, CBS Sunday Morning aired a piece called "The Science of Love" in which the mechanics of on-line dating services were explained in terms of how clients match up with one another. Many services use algorithms to better identify what customers are seeking by tracking their on-line searches. The largest on-line dating service has taken this approach into a new direction with results that target what singles really want instead of what they say they want.

Match.com employs a team of mathematicians to create algorithms to calculate customer behavior when searching online so the company can better pinpoint what customers truly want. Clients check off what traits they seek in a partner, their results are fed into an algorithm, and the match is made. Ah, not so fast. “We realize people break their own rules,” a mathematician who works for the online dating service offered. So, while someone’s background along with personality traits and the like are specifically identified as choice characteristics by customers, the proof of what they really want is in the actual activity done on the site.

"People might say things like it’s important they (their date choice) have the same religious affiliation – that one’s brokenquite a bit,” Match.com President Mandy Ginsburg explained in the CBS video.“But searches showed something different.” It apparently comes down to a difference between “what I say” vs. “what I do.” Customers may have said they were seeking particular attributes for a possible mate, but when they began to search the site, significant differences were revealed that were inconsistent with their initial parameters.

It appears two plus two does not necessarily equal four in the world of online dating searches. But the new algorithms now used by Match.com have resulted in twice as many emails sent between clients. The matches seem to be truer. It is interesting to note that mathematics can still play a role in understanding the often unknowable side to human behavior.

And speaking of human behavior, CBS brought in the opinion of a Psychology professor from Northwestern University to weigh in on the use of dating algorithms. “We have very little reason to believe that collecting information from two people who have never met can predict long term compatibility,” stated Professor Eli Finkel, Ph.D.

Dr. Finkel is one of several authors of the study titled “Online Dating: A Critical Analysis from the Perspective of Psychological Science” which sees online dating as an option for singles searching for love but concludes that “it may be luck that sparks a relationship rather than mathematical equations.” He notes, “I would encourage singles to think twice about whether online dating is the best use of their money.” 

A psychologist chose luck while an online dating service chose math. Can this collision of the two disciplines be any sweeter? Of course it can! In keeping with my noted discomfort with math and science as Love measurements, I invite a third guest to the party - a sports analogy.

It was the love of baseball and frustration with how other teams cherry picked great players from the team’s roster that brought Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane to a crossroads back in 2001. I watched the movie “Moneyball” this weekend, which looks at how the famed GM changed the parameters used in player selection. Beane whittled down the traditional criteria like fielding percentage, player size, and even what a player’s girlfriend looked like (yes, a factor noted in the film) to the statistic that mattered – getting on base. Beane’s controversial choice was like David to the traditional Goliath-like machine of player selection used by baseball scouts.

Immersed in pages of statistics, the scouts, in Beane’s estimation, were all looking
at the wrong information. A recent Yale grad who majored in economics presented Beane with statistics that gave new life to an old system.

While the impact of Beane’s decision was compelling, it was his commitment to a new vision that grabbed me by the throat. His decision flew in the face of everything he had been taught by baseball. He chose a mathematical course that, ironically in a game of statistics, was a humongous leap of faith. Beane may not have been seeking Love, but his search involved a love for something that he felt was being ruined. It is, in my estimation, a grand slam of a love story. And math was at its core.

Whether it’s in the numbers or the stars for you, here’s to feeling Love’s warm embrace not just in one day, but every day. Now, that is one for the books.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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