The big filter: Is there intelligent life on Tinder?

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Rehearsal snaps from short play 'Love in the Time of Tinder', by the Putney Theatre Company‏ (Image via @PutneyTheatreCo)

The chances of finding a decent relationship on Tinder is similar to finding evidence of intelligent aliens, says A J Matthews, who crunches the numbers.

A friend recently asked me what my "swipe" rate is. You know (don’t pretend you don’t), my rate of “right swiping” on Tinder.

I’m a middle aged, recently widowed guy, so this naturally got me thinking.

It must be possible to construct a theoretical framework by which one can predict the chance of ultimate success in the on-line dating game. That is, what are the odds of a Tinder account delivering a long term meaningful relationship?

There must be thousands of libertarian Casanova’s crying out for this information, to assess whether their Tinder account represents value for money.

I’m approaching this intellectual challenge as methodologically analogous to the Drake Equation. I’ve always considered that to be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek calculation — seeking to estimate the probability of making contact with intelligent extra-terrestrial species.

A more straightforward parallel to Tinder you will never find!

Drake sought to estimate the chances of locating intelligent aliens by estimating a series of stage-gate probabilities that each compound, one upon the other, to reduce the eternity of the cosmos into tangible odds of finding ET. Each element represents the probability of passing a critical filter, where failure represents the odds that the putative alien species fails to develop further and thus never becomes an interstellar communicator.

So, with copious apologies to Frank Drake, I submit the following equation:

L  =   R  x  fR fA  x  fF  x  fM  x  fTC  x  fDDfFZfSD


L is the chance you will find that sought after relationship during any given month.

R is your total number of Tinder swipes per month. Let’s assume you look at 20 profiles a day, on most days but not every day. So around 500 profiles per month. Not obsessive, but certainly determined.

fR is the probability of one of your swipees being a "real" account. Not someone “just checking this out”. Not a joke set up by a friend. Not a married person just casually looking at just how green the grass is on the other side of that fence today. It’s someone who is seriously in the game. I estimate this is about a two out of three bet.

fA is the probability that the swipee account is still "active". Not on holiday that month. Not moved overseas and forgotten to shut their account. Not busy with work and not temporarily exploring a possible relationship found IRL (in real life). Probably better give that a 2/3 chance too.

fF is the female proportion of "right swipe".  Yes, I envisage a future doctoral thesis on the subject will carefully quantify the differential right-swipe rates of Tinderellas and Tinderfellas. Dawkins explored this subject in “The Selfish Gene”, identifying that the quantifiably different male and female relationship psychology is a phenomenon that can be traced ultimately to the fact that female biology invests more in an egg that does male biology in a sperm. I’m not going to justify it with any more science — you’ll just have to accept that I’m with the big Dawk on this. I’m guessing the female rate to be optimistically one in ten. If you’re fussier than that, you might want to reconsider once you’ve reviewed the final results of my calculation!

fM is the male proportion of "right swipe". I’m betting men are prepared to (at least provisionally) tick off on two out of ten. As Harry Burns said in When Harry Met Sally when asked if men can be "just friends" with females they find unattractive: “No. You pretty much want to nail them too.”

fTC is the probability that neither party pulls the pin during the obligatory Tinder "chat", which for some comprises a detailed multifactorial graded questionnaire, while others are more subtle and circumspect in their interrogations.

Will she give him flashbacks to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction by saying something that might in other circumstances prompt a request for clarification? “I’m still hoping to find my happily ever after man” — a sure sign of a bunny boiler when committed to hard print!

Will he make some slightly lewd or suggestive joke without the benefit of self-deprecating body language to aid its interpretation as misfired humour rather than outright sleaze?

I’m going to bet the odds of a nascent relationship surviving this ritual is no better than one in five.

fDD is the probability that, having crossed the Rubicon and actually met for the obligatory drink date, the relationship (we can call it that now, can’t we?) survives a drink in a public place. Here, the threats are different. Will either of them bear more than passing resemblance to their two year out-of-date profile photos? Do they, in real life, manage to maintain obligatory standards of human hygiene? Is one of them a cheapskate? Or a cheap drunk? Or an undisclosed vegan?

I’ll guestimate the odds here at about one in three.

fFZ is the probability that they don’t end up in the Friend Zone. Let’s give that another one in three.

fSD is the probability that, after all that careful vetting by both parties – all that checking against preconceived criteria – that the relationship does not succumb to "self delusion" on the part of either protagonist.

I’m giving this a one in three chance too. This is perhaps the most subjective of my guestimates, so I’ll explain my reasoning.

Being newly single again (but previously successfully married for 25 years) I can’t help but feel that something has changed in the dating scene and changed significantly for the worse.

We once were reliant on serendipity. And it felt honest and romantic.

Relationships that started offline involve being thrown together by fate at least to some degree — as friends of friends, or work colleagues, or introduced by family or through some common interest. You are thereby put in contact with people for more than the one to two seconds it takes to assess a Tinder profile. Long enough that you possibly find out something you didn’t expect.

Not about them. About yourself.

And one of the benefits of the randomness of that process was that it bypassed individual’s own pre‑conceived notions of who they are and what they’re looking for in a partner.

Do we really think people are that self-reflective as to be a reliable conscious judge of their own ideal partner? And that honest with themselves too?

I get the distinct impression that those raised on the expectation of vetting off-line before countenancing a real life encounter eschew serendipity in favour of their own biased, perhaps self-deluded, selection criteria.

And I fear that may come back to haunt online relationships at some future date.

Such are my chairman words, for what it’s worth.

So, having assessed individually each of the filters that can stop a relationship in its tracks, the only thing left is to do the math.

The analysis indicates that on average one needs to vet around 15,000 profiles to have a reasonable expectation of finding a relationship that can pass each of the relationship killers. So our Tinderella or Tinderfella swiping 500 times a month has about 3% chance of finding love in any given month.

They should find themselves in a relationship on average after about two-and-a-half years. Give or take.

What would be your odds without Tinder’s brutal efficiency?

While you ponder that, I’ll go back to those aliens.

Unfortunately the Drake Equation fails one critical real-world test.

When you plug-in the best estimates for the probability of passing each filter, it indicates a probabilistic near-certainty that we should be communicating with intelligent species from all over the galaxy all the time.

But we’re not.

That leads to Fermi’s Paradox: “Where is everybody?”. (Or, the Tinder corollary: “Why haven’t I found someone yet?”)

So how does science reconcile the mathematical near-certainty of encountering intelligent life with the complete failure of intelligent life to present itself IRL?

The consensus seems to have settled on the solution to this conundrum (at least as far as the aliens are concerned) being one of “the three F’s”:

  1. We’re first: someone has to strike it lucky and be the first intelligent life. Others may come — just wait. Also remember, cosmologically speaking, 100 million years is nothing.
  2. We’re freaks: perhaps the odds used in the formula are wrong, or it missed a key step and it’s just hairy‑ass luck that intelligent life happens at all. So don’t hold your breath. There’s nobody out there. You’re on your own.
  3. We’re f**ked: the equation is correct as far as it goes, but there’s another great filter we missed from the formula. The bad news is, if this is the answer, it’s still out there killing off civilisations and humanity is yet to encounter it. (This doesn’t bode well for the future of human relationships, either.)

But if all this is true, how did people ever navigate this minefield in days before the internet? Before the ability to skim 500 profiles a month?

Here again, I turn to science for my answers.

It turns out that humans are hard wired with some pretty cool biological software. (Here, I’m using the word “cool” in a geeky sense that makes my daughters roll their eyes, and which garners no favour amongst the Tinder crowd.)

In Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart, the ABC Research Group explain how humans intuitively get a vibe for the statistical probability function that defines any random distribution with which they are faced (say, potential dating candidates). This is what Tinderella’s express intuitively as “finding out who’s out there”. Once you have an instinct for the shape and bounds of the probability curve – its mean and standard deviation – you have an intuition for the chances of finding a Mr Right who’s better than Mr Right Here.

After that, if you stumble across a 9.5/10, you know that if you then choose to hold out for a better man, you may as well be waiting for ET to arrive.

It turns out this "simple heuristic", with which evolution has bestowed humanity, is a whole lot faster and more effective than the process that Tinder imposes.

And that, my friends, is how romance works!

Or at least, science tell us that’s how our parents managed. And they called it romance.

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