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Can compatibility be defined by an algorithm? Students are betting their marriages on it

Abby Donnelly

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Georgetown UniversityAbby Donnelly

(WASHINGTON) When she double texted her match from the dating app Bumble to go out on a first date, Alex knew “it could go somewhere.” Alex and her match, Avery, then both George Washington University freshman, met at Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.. “I was really excited and nervous,” Alex remembers, “The anticipation was really high.”

The pair shared a charcuterie board for a picnic by the water, quickly realizing an organic connection beyond their online conversations. “But we did not just meet,” Avery noted, “The next day, we found out we were mathematically perfect for each other.”

College students like Alex and Avery have found potential long-term romantic partners by the grace of an algorithm known as the Marriage Pact. Stanford University students Liam McGregor and Sophia Sterling- Angus architected the algorithm in 2017 to identify the most compatible marriages on college campuses. Rather than focus on attraction or chemistry, the pact aims at identifying a person who would be a suitable marital partner in the case that no other relationships work out, creating an ultimate back-up plan. “When you have climbed the corporate ladder, look up from your cubicle, and realize everyone else has married off,” McGregor questions, “Who is the person you are going to call?” Would a Marriage Pact match be the answer?

More than 60,000 students across college campuses have participated in the Marriage Pact. Recently expanded onto Georgetown University's campus, the Marriage Pact phenomenon taps into wealth disparities and political change in the student body for post-pandemic relationship-seekers. In one week, one in four Georgetown students had signed up to find their statistically based soulmate.

Placing forever in the hands of fate has intrigued romantics for decades. As the premise of the 1997 film My Best Friend’s Wedding and the agreement made by Ross and Rachel in Friends, marriage pacts provide an unrealistic sense of control in a complicated dating world. For college students, the Stanford Marriage Pact pulls the strings of destiny into mathematical sequences, making love a science and its algorithm an experiment. “It finds a person who is good enough,” McGregor notes, “Not someone who will sweep you off your feet and light you on fire.”

Since the advent of dating apps, few have focused on universities to thread market design, psychology, and computer science into the fabric of a forever partner. Most young adults rely on appearance-focused apps with unlimited matches, like Tinder, which manipulate the paradox of choice to assure users there is always a better option. The Marriage Pact, however, leaves students with only one match, the “best” person on campus, considering financial values, political ideologies, and non-negotiables intended to filter out unfit pairs, particular priorities for Georgetown students.

To participate, students answer a survey and respond to each statement on a scale of “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Integral questions to the survey include the respondent’s age, sexual preferences, relationship status, and religious affiliations. Other responses require more reflection, touching on drinking habits, drug use, and future families. Built with this base framework, the pact is fitted to each

student population with more variable portions of the survey. If certain aspects of campus culture are important for student compatibility, the Marriage Pact may address these dynamics through its survey.

For instance, Georgetown’s Marriage Pact intentionally featured questions to address drastic student wealth disparities, as more undergraduates hail from the top 1% than the bottom 60% of the income scale. “There are students that are clearly much wealthier than me, which is something I consider in a relationship,” Georgetown Marriage Pact founder Rebecca Glickman commented, noting her own advantages, “With privilege comes a lot of ignorance that many students don’t recognize in themselves.” The Marriage Pact may illuminate these disparities, with questions and statements such as, “How important is it to you that your child goes to private school,” and “Making money is more important than working a job I love.”

The student wealth divide mirrors the campus’s political polarization. Georgetown rival groups often host high-profile controversial speakers, inciting student protests. In response the survey covers the student body’s core political preferences, as Georgetown students oftentimes perceive opposing views as a deal breaker. “If you have a political ideology that’s different from me, I either think you’re a bad person or you’re stupid,” Georgetown student Ryan Mercante commented. Students responded to the statements, “I think abortion should always be legal,” and “Gender roles exist for a reason.”

While campuses like Georgetown are disproportionately wealthy and white, students from all backgrounds participate in the Marriage Pact. In the Stanford University Class of 2020, 91.4% of students had participated in the survey at least once. Moreover, matches are not made regarding race, social class, or socioeconomic status, but based on the respondent's answers to questions regarding their core values. Students may have the opportunity to express their desire to match with another student from their own demographic background, such as a shared religious practice.

The Marriage Pact evolves into a highly promoted campus event, where students only have about one week to participate. Then the Marriage Pact closes the survey and runs their algorithm, determining optimal matches in the pool of respondents based on the percentile of shared responses. “Research shows that opposites do not attract,” McGregor said, “But compatibility is much more nuanced than similarity.” The survey’s questions are not weighted equally, however, each calculated with a different degree of importance in matchmaking. McGregor claims that up to 30% of matches meet up.

“I matched with a guy I heard really bad things about and was not attractive at all to me,” Georgetown student Garrett Richard recalled. Mercante was paired with a girl in a long-term committed relationship, matching in the 99.9% percentile (names were changed to ensure the privacy of the individuals). More unfortunate matches include Princeton’s Andrew White, who matched with his twin brother, or the student who found out his soulmate was his RA.

For NYU students Georgia Evans and Tori Oatway, their pairing resulted in an authentic marriage pact. Already best friends, they matched in the highest percentiles on campus. Evans thought, “Might as well, Tori would be a great wife.” Evans and Oatway plan to get married at age 35, given no other relationships work out.

The buzz over the Marriage Pact settled quickly after results went out. Ultimately, only a handful of pairs tried for a connection beyond following each other on Instagram. “I think I bought into the narrative that there’s a sophisticated algorithm that actually has been successful,” Richard confirmed. “I am just affirmed in my attitude that I am not taking it as seriously.”

The Marriage Pact creates further questions for individual responsibility in terms of its data privacy. Duke undergraduates Niharika Vattikonda and Jess Edelson convinced peers to either not take the survey or ask the creators to delete all collected information due to their interpretation of the data privacy practices. Vattikonda notes, “At the end of the day, it’s your information and you should have full autonomy over it.” Specifically, Vattikonda and Edelson’s apprehensions concentrate on the pact’s data privacy principles at the time lacking any mention of protection against cybersecurity risks and holding respondents’ answers until “no longer needed.” “This is a learnable moment of responsibility and transparency,” Vattikonda emphasizes, “Our campus is a microcosm of the general tech world.”

The concerns are rooted in the intimate nature of the data involved in the Marriage Pact, where the leaking of students’ information would ignite sensitive, embarrassing, and potentially employer-affecting outcomes. Engagement with the service also raises the question of how much information are students willing to give away. Since the Duke article, the Marriage Pact team has bolstered their data policy, as McGregor commented, “Some of the ideas they raised in the opinion column were so intrinsic to who we are as ethical people that they merited clearer communication in the document.” The Marriage Pact has promised not to sell any respondent’s information and allows participants to withdraw at any point.

Willing students may fulfill their desire for connection after months of isolation and movement restrictions due to the pandemic. Coming back to campus, many will be searching for the relationships lost in the chaos of COVID-19. In their Future of Dating report, Tinder recorded 19% more messages and 32% longer conversations throughout the pandemic. Gen Z enthusiasm for relationships versus flings may heighten as they return to campus, fueled by programs like Marriage Pact.

For Georgetown students, the Marriage Pact proved to be wildly popular, but only partially effective. If the Marriage Pact returns to campus this fall, more students will bet on the odds of meeting their marriage partner. “Not everyone is going to get married or date,” McGregor noted, “But some will, and that’s the crazy part.”

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A Delaware-based journalist highlighting local stories on health, education, and science. Abby is an undergraduate at Georgetown University studying global health and journalism.

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