How game theory can help you find “the one”

July 9, 2021
posted in
written by Anna Vorfeld & Claas Westendorf

Thinking about the search for true love, what first comes to mind are butterflies and love at first sight, rather than strategic behaviour and rationality.

Nonetheless, as the Hollywood movie A Beautiful Mind – a homage to Nobel Prize-winning game theorist John Nash – pointed out, a little game theory can do the trick between “being alone” and “happy ever after”.

In the movie, Nash uses game theory to decide which woman should be approached in a bar scene, to maximize the chances for success:

Since nowadays (and especially during a pandemic), apps – rather than bars – are the place to meet people, we will focus in this article on analysing how you may improve your chances of finding the right person by applying game theory using a dating app – in this case Tinder.

How does it work? Tinder’s entrance barriers, matching mechanism & target group

As for every dating app, several frame conditions influence your strategic choices, starting from how much effort, time and information it “costs” to get started with the app
(= entrance barriers), how the app matches you with other candidates (= matching mechanism), and who is using the app, and for what purpose (= target group).

Tinder partly gained its popularity by its simple registration and functionality. Requiring only a few pictures and a short self-description, the hunt for the right person can begin quickly.

Tinder will suggest possible candidates to you according to your selected settings, in response to which you can ultimately choose to “like” or “dislike” them.

This works by simply viewing the given profile information and then “swiping” left (dislike) or right (like). The app now will evaluate if one of the candidates you liked also liked you by swiping your profile to the right – if so, there is a match.

As soon as you are matched with another candidate, you are able to contact this person via text messages, and move on to the next step.

There are several criteria which influence how the app’s matching mechanism works in order to evaluate which profiles are shown to you and if your profile is shown to other users.
This matching is based on an attractiveness score of your profile, for which it is important whether you have a high rate of matches (do other users “like” me when I like them?), a high number of likes in general (how many people “like” my profile when it is shown to them) and how actively you use the app.

Since Tinder aims to attract anyone rather than specific groups of people, – say, for example, only academics or vegetarians – the target group can be considered as very diverse. This also fits with the purpose for which the app is used, ranging from only looking for a flirt to looking for a partner for life.

The right strategy – three steps to find “the one”

As we of course want to support true love, the following strategy is focused on people looking for a serious relationship rather than a flirt.

Taking into account the previously mentioned frame conditions, the following strategic considerations arise from a game-theoretical perspective.

Step 1 – Setting up your profile, how honest should I be?

The question of the right profile set-up is mainly a question of so called “cheap talk” vs. “truth-telling”. “Cheap talk” could include describing yourself in an overwhelming, too-good-to-be-true way, as well as using your photo-enhancing skills to show the best (or probably even better than best) image of yourself.

Truth-telling, on the other hand, would be displaying yourself as you are, stating your real interests, values and goals in life as well as showing real, representative pictures.

Intuitively “cheap talk” could be viewed as the better option, since it will help you to get as many likes as possible and get many matches to choose from.

But from a strategic point of view, this option has a great disadvantage, since you can match with any kind of candidate using the app – so there is a high probability you will end up with people who are actually not interested in you or do not share your values and interests. To be able to focus on candidates who are truly likely to become a future partner, you want to signal credibly and truthfully who you are and what you are looking for. Otherwise, you may end up wasting your time with a lot of disappointments.

Step 2 – When to swipe left or right?

After setting up the right profile, the next question is which profiles you should like or dislike (swipe right or left). The two major strategies of interest can be considered broadly as “liking all” or “selecting first”.

Assuming you have already set up a truthful and credible profile, you could pass the burden of making the match to the other side by simply liking every profile shown to you.
Thereby, you maximize your chances of achieving matches as well as reducing your “cost”, i.e. the time spent looking through all profiles suggested to you.

The flaw in this strategy is that, given the mechanism of the app, you may end up with a lot of “dislikes” from users whose profile you liked, resulting in a negative impact on your matching score and making your profile “less attractive”. In consequence, you will subsequently only be suggested to other users with “less attractive” profiles.

Additionally, this could lead to so-called choice overload: too many options, or in our case matches, can overwhelm you in your decision-making, leading to an undesirable result. For comparison, consider choosing the right dish in a restaurant whose menu is 101 pages long – you would probably end up choosing something just so you could finally eat.

Therefore, the better strategy is to intentionally limit your options by pre-selecting which candidate could be interesting for you, according to his or her profile. Not only would this strategy solve the choice overload problem, it can help you to re-evaluate your own liking, in case you learn that resulting matches do not fit your real preferences.

Step 3 – After the match, who do I meet?

After gathering a certain number of matches, it is finally time to decide who is a suitable candidate for a date – or even something more. The problem is, however, when do I know that there is not a better option out there? A game theorist would speak of the “optimal stopping problem”.

In our context, this means when is the right time to commit to a certain option instead of spending more and more time hoping the right option/person is still to come?

This decision to commit can strategically be compared to choosing which mobile phone you want to buy. By defining relevant criteria that are important to you (e.g. camera quality, memory size, etc.), and comparing those to a pool of potential options (e.g. mobile phones within your price range), you should be able to choose the best option out of a sufficiently large sample. The tricky question herein is what is a sufficiently large sample to compare?

Mathematically, you should look at 37% of all options, as a sufficient sample size, but this is practically impossible to define (or not manageable within one lifetime), since you would need to be able to narrow down what “all options” are. Therefore, a better approach is to define for yourself upfront how much “resources” (i.e. time) you want to spend before you are willing to give somebody a chance to win your heart forever.

And quite apart from any strategic aspect, if you feel the butterflies right away, maybe one match is all you need!



This blog article was inspired by our Game Changer podcast episode Falling in love – game theory style! with Christina Gravert. You can find her article How to Date Like a Game Theorist here.