Most of us have spent time thinking about “the one”—that person we’re “supposed” to end up with, a pre-destined mate floating around out there somewhere. If you’re inclined to believe in that sort of thing, you’ve probably asked yourself, “How do I meet this person?” “Is the person I’m with right now the person I’m supposed to be with forever?” Probably, at least once, you’ve stressed yourself out worrying about it.
But have you ever thought of it as a math problem that needs solving? One physics professor at Washington University in St. Louis suggests approaching your search for “the one” as a probability game. Spoiler alert: According to his theory, you have more than a 1-in-3 chance of finding this special person. That’s actually not bad, considering there are about 7.4 billion people on this earth.
“This is an amazing probabilistic result, and it’s extraordinarily hard to believe,” Professor Carl Bender said to the university.
The theory laid out by Bender is also called the “fussy suitor problem.” In this probability problem, you have a pool of suitors to choose from, all the people you’ll date in your life. Within the constraints of this problem, you have to assign each person a “yes” or a “no”—your decision on each is irrevocable and as soon as you give someone a “yes” and choose them you have to stop playing. So how do you know when to stop?
Well, there’s a mathematical strategy to winning this “game,” and it involves meeting enough people out of the pool to give you the very best chance at making the right decision. (In other words, it’s better to keep playing than to make a poor decision too soon.) Imagine it this way: You’re playing the same game with slips of paper with numbers written on them. Each time you draw one of the slips from a hat you have to make a decision about whether the number represents the largest one in the hat.
The best way to win? Choose a number of slips of paper ahead of time that you’ll reject at the beginning of the game. You’re effectively taking a sample on what’s in the hat. Once you’ve hit that mark, the next time you draw a number that’s larger than any of the ones you drew in your sample, choose it. No matter how many slips of papers are in that hat, if you follow this strategy, you actually have a 1-in-3 chance of being right. (Watch the clip above for a full mathematical breakdown.)
“You may either win or lose, but this strategy is so powerful that your chances of winning the game are really impressively large, even for a billion pieces of paper in that box your chance of winning that game is one in three,” Bender said. “This is in fact the strategy you should use in finding a spouse.”
Of course, dealing with people is more than a little different than dealing with numbers written on slips of paper. People don’t have clear numerical rankings, and there are all kinds of outside factors that affect who we date, why and for how long. We also don’t know ahead of time how many suitable people we’ll meet in our lives. Plus, in Bender’s model, you can’t get back together with your ex.
Long story short? Keep playing the game. It might seem obvious, but the more chances you take the more likely you are find the best number in that hat.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.