There was once a returned missionary that came home eager to start a family. He was happy, ambitious and quite a looker. So he whipped out his daily planner determined to find an eternal companion and live happily ever after.
Being somewhat of an expert on finding, inviting and committing, he made a list of several prospects and set out to date each and every one with hopes of finding the one.
- The first girl was in his ward. She looked cute from across the gym at the munch n mingle, but upon further investigation she consistently had terrible breath.
- The second girl was from California and had extremely expensive taste. Far too high maintenance for a humble RM with several years of university left.
- The third girl was a lot of fun, but didn’t have any intention of settling down.
- The fourth girl was a catch. Tall, athletic and a wedding photographer. But the RM wanted to explore his other options.
- While the RM was trying to woo the fifth girl both the fourth and fifth girls started dating flashy summer sales guys.
- The sixth girl was too shy especially for a recently returned missionary.
- The seventh girl was an oh-so-sweet-spirit, but much too plain for the RM’s taste.
- The eighth girl was hard-working and ambitious. So much so, that she didn’t give the RM the time or attention he’d hoped for from a future mate.
- The ninth girl loved to dance and party. She seemed interesting, but was always on dates with other guys.
- The tenth girl was all kinds of needy.
- The eleventh was beautiful, but the RM couldn’t date a freshman. She was just too young.
The RM had spent months and months searching for a future spouse. How could his plan have been such a failure? He’d prayed about marriage and knew that it was a worthy goal. His mission president had even counseled him to look for a spouse when he got home. What was he doing wrong?
What the RM (and so many like him) needed wasn’t a blessing from the bishop, but an optimal strategy. Not a recipe for the perfect marriage, but a scientific method to increase the odds of satisfaction.
As it turns out mathematicians have such a formula appropriately named, “The Marriage Problem”. This handy little strategy works anytime you’re faced with a fixed number of options, whether that’s potential spouses or restaurants to eat at on a Friday night.
Here’s How It Works
Suppose you have to hire a new secretary and you have a list of 20 eligible candidates. But at the end of each interview you must decide whether or not to fill the job. Also, you’re not allowed to continue interviewing the rest of the candidates once you fill the job. If by the end of the interviews the position is unfilled, you must give the job to the final applicant.
What Should You Do?
The best way to proceed, as explained in The Grapes of Math, is to interview the first 36.8% of candidates for the job without offering the job to any of them. That first group is more or less your test group. Now as soon as you find a candidate that’s better than the test group, you offer them the job.
Why does this work?
To be honest, I don’t fully understand the explanation of why this works. It’s something to do with mathematicians using a number called “e” which can be reduced to 1/e = 36.8%. I guess that’s the best sample you can get without sorting through all your options. It’s all very scientific, and explained in greater detail here. Hopefully one of you can explain it to me in the comments.
What about the RM?
So in the case of our over eager RM, here’s what he should have done. He should have dated the first four candidates (or 36.8% of the 11). At which point he would have found his test group. Then, starting with the 5th girl, he would’ve been looking for any girl better than the four in the test group. In which case he would have ended up with the 5th girl and probably lived happily ever after.
Want to get married?
Dating is hard nowadays, especially when Mr./Ms. Right is just a swipe away. But we have to get out of the grass-is-always-greener approach to dating. You’re flawed he’s/she’s flawed, and nobody is perfect. So let’s do more than just flap our gums. Make a list of your potential suitors, preferably larger than 10. Now multiply the total number of prospects by .368 (or 36.8%) That’s how many individuals out of the total group you should use as your test group. Now go through the list and find that special someone better than or as good as the best of your test group.
Keep in mind the goal is to find a satisfying relationship that maximizes happiness while decreasing indecision. It’s important to remember that marriage isn’t the finish line; it’s really just the start of eternity (I’m slapping myself for sounding so cliché). So don’t look back at 2014 and past relationships that should or shouldn’t have worked out for some reason. Look forward with faith to your foolproof plan for finding a spouse in 2015.
Note: The story of this RM is exactly what happened to Johannes Keppler, a brilliant astronomer in the 1600’s, after his wife passed away. He did end up with the fifth girl and they did live happily ever after. This story was adapted from an article on NPR by Robert Krulwich, “How to Marry the Right Girl: a Mathematical Solution“