Cecilia Cary
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Can Statistics Find Your Soulmate?

— Cecilia Cary

So you’re looking for love. But the whole soulmate thing is taking too long—you want somebody perfect, and you’re growing impatient. Have no fear, for statistics might have an answer to your dilemma.

Picture this: You’re a CEO and a big company-wide deadline is approaching. But uh oh—your head secretary just quit. You need someone great and you need someone fast. How in the world can you find this person?

Statisticians called this The Secretary Problem. You must interview n applicants, immediately deciding to either hire or deny them. If you deny them, they’re gone forever. Interviewing all n applicants would take too long, so you need to understand when to stop looking and just pick someone. But where is that line?

The book Algorithms To Live By offers an answer: the 37% rule. The 37% rule says that in order to have the highest chance of success (hiring the best candidate), you must divide your interview process into “looking” and “leaping.” When looking, you are interviewing applicants and simply gathering information about each one (think credentials, special qualities, etc.) without thinking about hiring. When leaping, you are interviewing applicants with the understanding that you must make your final choice of who to hire.

With n applicants, the best place to draw the line between looking and leaping is at 37%. This is to say that you should be “looking” throughout the first 37% of applicants. After you have interviewed these applicants, you must “leap” and hire the next candidate you find that is better than everybody in that first 37%. As the applicant pool grows, this optimal strategy gives you the highest chance of selecting the best candidate. 

Well, we can apply the same rule to love. Say you have n dates lined up and 6 months to find a partner. Just apply the 37% rule here and you’ve got a match! Sure, whether sparks fly or not is entirely independent of mathematics—but after your 5th mediocre date in a row, this may be an interesting strategy to consider.