Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Finding the Love of Your Life ( A Lesson in Probability)

It is that time of the year again, when American businesses, struggle to find a way to wrap their products in red & pink and pitch it to the American consumer looking for a way to celebrate that day dedicated to all things romantic, Valentine’s Day. For those who have found ‘the love of their lives’ it is a day, to reaffirm their love for each other and to secretly relish the fact that they no longer have to play the arduous dating game. For the rest of us, who have yet to find that ‘love of our lives’ it is hand-wringing time. Will we ever find Mr. or Ms. Right?

Well, maybe there is nothing to fret about, after all this is the 21st century, the era of internet dating and as the online dating companies boast, millions of choices. Somewhere in that million, there has got to be that one perfect one for you, right? But how do you find that one in a million? You may not like the answer, but finding the romance of your life has a lot more to do with the mathematics of probability than roses and champagne.

Imagine that you are a blue sock with tiny white polka dots and you must find your perfect match the other blue sock with white polka dots. Now imagine that to find your perfect match you are only allowed to close your eyes and pick one from a sock drawer with a million different socks in it. This is essentially a random choice. What are the chances that you will find the right one? 1/1000,000. You could get lucky and pull the right sock out of the drawer. Probabilistically speaking, one in a million means, it is just not gonna happen.

You need a way to go from impossible to more possible. So what can you do to increase your odds? In mathematics the probability of a given event (that is finding that one perfect match) will depend on the total number of choices. You must find 1 blue sock with white polka dots out of a million different ones. Which translates to 1/1000,000.

If you can some how decrease the total number of choices, you would be able to increase your chances. So let’s say that you could eliminate all the white socks from the drawer and reduce the total number of socks in the drawer to say 100,000. Now your chances of finding the right one if you closed your eyes and picked one out of the drawer at random would be 1/100,000. This is better than what it was but still pretty impossible. So we should reduce again. This time let’s get rid of all the colors except for those that are blue. Assume that this reduces things to 10,000. Your chance of finding the right one at random is 1/10,000. Better than before, still not good enough. So we reduce again and keep only those socks with patterns, which, let us assume, reduces our pool to a 100. Now your chances are 1/100. This is much much better, but still a lot of tries to find the right one. So we will do one more elimination. We will reduce the pool to only those socks with white patterns and let us assume that this brings it down to 10. Now your chances are 1/10. This is fantastic! This means that somewhere between the first sock you pull out and potentially the tenth one you will definitely find your perfect match, that other blue sock with white polka dots.

If only finding the love of your life was like finding a matching pair of socks.

In some ways though, it sort of is. The sock analogy applied to the dating world would be the chances of meeting Mr., or Ms. Right if all you were allowed to do was pick someone out of the million at random. You could find the love of your life anywhere between the first and the millionth date. Those are bad odds. So you increase your chances of success by elimination, let’s say by age. That will bring down your choices and increase your odds. By the sock analogy the more filters you use the greater your odds will be.

Ah! But here is where the similarities end. Using the filters will only increase your odds if you use the right filters or parameters. The filters we used to eliminate all the wrongs socks, were useful only because we knew exactly what we were looking for. To increase your odds of finding your perfect match, you need to know what the right questions or parameters are. To figure out the right parameters or questions, you must first know exactly what you want. Otherwise the math is useless.

So what if you don’t know what exactly you are looking for? What if, you really need that dependable geek, but your dating check list keeps you dating all those irresponsible bad boys? What if, you think you know the check list that will get you to your soul mate, but don’t really? In fact that is exactly what Dr. Phil and all of those other relationship gurus on the self-help aisle are counting on. We all want to find that right one, but don’t really know the right check list. Our yearning and ignorance becomes their cha-ching.

Those of us, who do end up finding the love of our lives, often realize things only after the fact. You may have thought all along that your perfect match was the blue sock with the white polka dots, but somewhere along the way, it may suddenly dawn on you that the white sock with the blue polka dots you are holding is the real ying to your yang.

I wonder what this means practically in the dating world...does it mean that it's all pretty random? That the more important issue is that we need to know what we're looking for? Does speed dating and/or internet dating work? Or should we just try to leave things up to chance? Should we just get over the idea/myth that there is "the one"?
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