Sorry, Guy: Math Can't Get You A Girlfriend

Why OkCupid (and, more generally, love) can't really be "hacked."

Earlier this week, Wired published a story on Chris McKinlay, a Ph.D. student in mathematics at UCLA who developed an algorithm to game OkCupid's own: By using statistical sampling to identify the types of questions answered by women he finds attractive, McKinlay could give these questions more weight in his own profile, thereby inflating his match percentages with those women.

McKinlay's moment of reckoning is described as such: "He'd been approaching online matchmaking like any other user. Instead, he realized, he should be dating like a mathematician."

Well, no. Those two things, dating and mathematics, should raise an asynchronicity alarm when spoken in the same breath. Math might facilitate the site McKinlay uses — OkCupid, famously created by Harvard math majors, uses vague and semi-secret mathematical algorithms to match its users — but the idea that math (or, more broadly, "formulas") can be used as a dating tactic is a surprisingly popular belief based on a number of very flawed premises, many of which reveal pickup artist-flavor misogynist attitudes among the nerdy white guys who champion them.

But first, let's consider the statistical problems! McKinlay created 12 fake OkCupid profiles ("bots"), which were then used to data-mine thousands of women's profiles, grouping potential matches by age, career type, and lifestyle, among other categories. The bots also gathered data about the types of questions answered most frequently by women in each cluster, so that McKinlay could A) pick a cluster he liked (in his case, "indie types, musicians and artists," of course) and B) mimic their question-answering patterns. His program told him which questions mattered most to the women he was attracted to, and so he paid most attention to those.

Not surprisingly, in terms of matching with more women he had previously decided he wanted to be matched with, here McKinlay was successful. It is true that if you ape someone's OkCupid profile, your match percentage with that person will go up. You, too, may be ready to start your Ph.D. in mathematics at UCLA. However! The entire ethos behind McKinlay's work requires an implicit belief in an impossible probability: that by simply increasing one's number of high-percentage matches, one is proportionately more likely to find a girlfriend.

This is not how life works, and it's not even how statistics (which are admittedly not always that lifelike) work. If you toss a quarter 10 times, each toss is equally likely to result in heads or tails. On the 10th toss, you have a 50% chance of seeing either, no matter what happened the other nine times. This is also true if you toss a quarter 50,000 times. Similarly, as long as we're thinking of people as math problems here, if you ask out 10 women, each of them is still an individual with her own likelihood of saying yes. That personal likelihood doesn't change whether she's one of 10 or one of 50,000.

But much of the language used in the story reflects a weird mathematician-pickup artist-hybrid view of women as mere data points anyway, often quite literally: McKinlay refers to identity markers like ethnicity and religious beliefs as "all that crap"; his "survey data" is organized into a "single, solid gob"; unforeseen traits like tattoos and dog ownership are called "latent variables." By viewing himself as a developer, and the women on OkCupid as subjects to be organized and "mined," McKinlay places himself in a perceived greater place of power. Women are accessories he's entitled to. Pickup artists do this too, calling women "targets" and places where they live and hang out "marketplaces." It's a spectrum, to be sure, but McKinlay's worldview and the PUA worldview are two stops along it. Both seem to regard women as abstract prizes for clever wordplay or, as it may be, skilled coding. Neither seems particularly aware of, or concerned with, what happens after simply getting a woman to say yes.

Even if McKinlay was able to get more first dates after "hacking" OkCupid, his meticulous creep-bot work does nothing to get him any more second dates — the story informs us that he's been on over 80 first dates (sometimes, classily, two per day) since starting the project, but notes that only three had follow-ups. (The story notes that McKinlay does eventually meet someone—a woman outside his "A-group" who independently contacts him.) And this is the single greatest flaw in the McKinlay model, the one that reveals most about what he (and people like him) think of women: the fact that eventually, they will have to meet these women. In person. In the inconvenient, independent variable-laden real world.

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated that McKinlay had been on over 20 first dates, not 80, and did not mention that McKinlay had eventually met someone.

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