Thursday, 28 March 2013

Probability, And The Search For Love

How’s your life, generally?  The reason I ask is that I get the feeling humans have a habit of overestimating the value and quality of important things in life.  I think this is especially true when lots of options are on the table, and people only choose infrequently.  If you only buy one book per year, then you've chosen that particular book over all the other available options, so I would guess that you've overestimated the quality of that book, and that you'll probably enjoy it less than you thought.  If you buy and read three books per week you'll find lots of disappointing books but lots of pleasant surprises too - so the chances of overestimating the quality of one book diminishes.  

If you only had one holiday abroad last year, the chances are you overestimated the quality of that holiday.  You had thousands of possible locations, and you chose that particular one, which, again, means it is likely the destination you opted for after weighing up all the possible destinations is the one you most overestimated.   Conversely, if you went on a one week holiday every fortnight, you'd find your general overestimations would lessen.   

Continuing that logic, and in reference to the last Blog on Iraq, I assume that those who were most keen to mobilise our troops in Iraq were those who most overestimated the success we'd have.  We don't invade many countries, so when it comes to the ones we do invade it's likely that we've done so because we've underestimated the number or lives that would be lost, inflated our chances of success, and overestimated the net value our invasion would bring.

How does this kind of analysis reward us in considering the search for a beloved?  Well, assuming that the beloved you’ve chosen came about after proper consideration of many alternatives, it is likely to be the case that you chose him or her because you thought they would bring to your life the qualities and values you were hoping to have.  So, the chances are that for many people their relationships are not living up to their expectations.  Following the same logic as above, if you chose one person to be your beloved amongst many alternatives, the chances are your beloved is the one in whom you’ve put the highest hopes, which probably means he or she is the person in your life that you’ve most overestimated.

Of course, that doesn’t always apply – some people get together with low hopes and end up being pleasantly surprised, while some settle for less than their optimum choice because of low self esteem or impatience, and others decide that the payoff of a relationship is worth cutting short the lengthier search for their ideal partner. 

But generally, I fancy that big expectations tend to dwarf how those expectations play out in reality – and logic would follow that this is true of relationships.  It’s important to understand what is being said here – this doesn’t mean they are bad, or that they are not worth having, or that they are not often wonderful, or even that you’re consciously aware of how those expectations are dwarfed - after all, we humans are good at suppressing the overall disappointments and making the best out of our life situations.  What’s being said is merely that most people overestimate more than they realise.

So, in the knowledge of the tendency to overestimate, how best should single people search for a beloved?  First, we must recognise that finding love is a matter of probability.  When you were single, or if you are single, and hoping to settle down, you have, in theory, the option of every single person of the opposite sex out there.  You want to know at which point in the dating game you should settle down, how you know who the best one with whom to settle down is, and how many people you will need to date to increase your chances of finding a really good beloved.

Here’s another way of asking the question; say you’ve got plenty of money, and you’ve had a Mercedes for the past seven years and you found it to be reliable and good to drive.  Should you buy a newer Mercedes or should you try other cars?  That all depends on a variety of things; how many times you plan to have new cars, whether you want to stick to what you know is good and reliable or whether you want to try other cars.  You may buy a BMW or a Lexus and find you regret not sticking with the Mercedes, but then again you may find that the BMW is better all round and that you wish you’d have tried it sooner. 

The car analogy is a good illustration for intrinsic choice and preference, but it is only a one way illustration, because car buyers care a lot more about the car enjoyment than sellers do – sellers largely only care about whether you’ve paid for the car.  Given that relationships are a two-way thing, a better analogy would be to consider a landlord and tenant.  A tenant wants to find the optimum place to rent, and the landlord wants to find the best person to whom he can rent his property.  I think this is a good analogy for the probabilistic nature of finding a beloved.

Suppose you are looking to rent a place to live in the centre of London as you begin a new job.  Your criteria for the optimum place is as follows; the most decent property available, as close to the centre as possible, in the nicest area, and within your price range.  In looking for that place you know you have no chance of viewing all the available properties in London, so you are shown around a few, and at some point after assessing what is available you are going to have to decide.  You know that in deciding the chances are you haven’t got the best property in that sample space.  Had you have kept looking for longer it is likely that a more preferable property would come up.  That would be a potential benefit, but all risks have potential costs too – and you may end up regretting not taking the place that initially met much of your criteria. 

So, at the end of the search, in finding a place you like that meets your needs, you want to sign all the paperwork to ensure that your living arrangements are legally bound in a contract.  Now, of course, the landlord has a stake too – he owns the property, he’s advertised it, shown a few people around, and he wants to ensure he gets the best and most reliable tenant.  He also knows that you probably are not the best tenant in the sample space, but he too has to weigh up costs and benefits.  If he takes a liking to you, he may well decide to enter into a landlord/tenant contract with you, rather than see it sit empty for weeks, or risk renting it to greasy Gary who plays in a rock band, has lots of parties, and might wreck the place.

The parallels should be evident; the search for a beloved is like this – you are looking for a contract of romance with someone – a tacit contract in which you invest yourself into the life and future of a beloved, and he or she, you.  Like the landlord and tenant, you both know that your prospective beloved is probably not the best person you could ever meet – there are others out there who will give you more chemistry, pleasure, mental stimulation, laughs, fulfilment, security and happiness.  But you may never meet them – and in holding on in the hope of meeting that ‘ideal‘ person you might strike gold, or you might end up wishing you’d taken up the offer of Peter or Jenny with whom you went on those few dates. Moreover, those who look for the maximally good partner (sometimes called ‘the ideal husband/wife) may be setting themselves up for disappointment.  A maximally good partner for you is likely to be a maximally good partner for many others too, so you might have to work hard to keep yourself happy and secure in such a relationship.

You may also suspect that the contemporary age seems like it presents different challenges to the past.  The causes behind the vast number of modern day break-ups and levels of compatibility are diverse and complex – and too lengthy for this Blog post.  But the fact that contemporary people in the UK treat it more probabilistically is, I think, a contributory factor.  Here’s a simple picture; a man is in the probability game searching for a beloved.  He thinks he has a world full of girls from which to choose – so he tends to opt for the best-looking, funniest, smartest, nicest girl he thinks he can get.  His search space is all about probability and diminishing returns.  If these are the main goals he has then there can rarely be much security (particularly in this country’s post-cultural revolution paradigm) because he may well find a new best-looking, funniest, smartest, nicest girl – one who trumps the last one (this applies to the girl in her search too).  But the laws of probability suggest even when they are in a relationship that throughout anyone’s life they will continually meet people who score more highly on their proprietary rating system – so the probability of the relationship surviving diminishes – hence the perennial insecurities one sees all over the place. 

I can tell you one thing for certain; even when you do commit yourself to one beloved, you are going to continually meet other people who are better looking, wittier, more intelligent, kinder, more generous hearted and more emotionally astute than your partner.  But if one adopts the grass is greener approach then it is going to be a lot tougher, because you will continually be making comparisons and coming home discontent.  This is a prescription for uncertainty and discontentment – and I think one of the big battles humans face is in learning to treasure the intrinsic rewards in isolation from the allure of outside temptations.  To constantly imagine better alternatives will do you no good, because every step of your life will show you better alternatives somewhere outside of your relationship.  

There is, though, you’ll recall, something about love that puts it on a step above searching for a place to rent.  However long you live in the place of your choice, you will never get so emotionally attached to a property that other, better properties should not be embraced.  That is to say, a better property doesn’t stop being better just because you happen to be in a contract situation whereby you’re renting one to which you are less suited or less likely to be happy.  Love, on the other hand, when it is the real thing, is different, because you can, and are expected to, get so emotionally attached to a beloved that other, intrinsically more suitable partners, are not embraced romantically. 

This is the power of love, and the ability it has to unite two people against a backdrop of other (many better) alternatives.  What stops those alternatives seeming like genuine alternatives is that feeling love for a beloved is a more powerful presence in one’s life than any rational justifications towards alternatives.  In love, we find that better isn’t a more attractive alternative – better is the love currently being enjoyed against the alternatives.  That’s probably what Pascal had in mind when he said – “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing”.  He was, after all, a mathematician, and consequently very proficient at understanding probability.