Committing to a partner is scary for all kinds of reasons. But one is that you never really know how the object of your current affections would compare to all the other people you might meet in the future. Settle down early, and you might forgo the chance of a more perfect match later on. Wait too long to commit, and all the good ones might be gone. You don’t want to marry the first person you meet, but you also don’t want to wait too long.
This can be a serious dilemma, especially for people with perfectionist tendencies. But it turns out that there is a pretty simple mathematical rule that tells you how long you ought to search, and when you should stop searching and settle down.
The math problem is known by a lot of names – “the secretary problem,” “the fussy suitor problem,” “the sultan’s dowry problem” and “the optimal stopping problem.” Its answer is attributed to a handful of mathematicians but was popularized in 1960, when math enthusiast Martin Gardner wrote about it in Scientific American.
In the scenario, you’re choosing from a set number of options. For example, let’s say there is a total of 11 potential mates who you could seriously date and settle down with in your lifetime. If you could only see them all together at the same time, you’d have no problem picking out the best. But this isn’t how a lifetime of dating works, obviously.
One problem is the suitors arrive in a random order, and you don’t know how your current suitor compares to those who will arrive in the future. Is the current guy or girl a dud? Or is this really the best you can do? The other problem is that once you reject a suitor, you often can’t go back to them later.
So how do you find the best one? Basically, you have to gamble. And as with most casino games, there’s a strong element of chance, but you can also understand and improve your probability of “winning” the best partner. It turns out there is a pretty striking solution to increase your odds.
The magic figure turns out to be 37 percent. To have the highest chance of picking the very best suitor, you should date and reject the first 37 percent of your total group of lifetime suitors. (If you’re into math, it’s actually 1/e, which comes out to 0.368, or 36.8 percent.) Then you follow a simple rule: You pick the next person who is better than anyone you’ve ever dated before.
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