Why The Fussy Suitor Problem Kills Your Relationships

Gather round, my young, perky, invincible friends. The ones who shall never run out of options.

Let me tell you the tragic true tale of the Fussy Suitor Problem. Famous scientist Johannes Kepler arranged a series of eleven interviews when searching for a second wife. A 17th Century speed dating session, if you will. After a disappointing interview with candidate five, he backtracked and proposed to previously rejected candidate four.

Ladies reading this, let me hear you say, We are never, ever getting back together, Johannes. Our greedy protagonist learned you can’t have your cake and sample all the others too.

He waited too long, sampled too much, and didn’t lock down a good thing when he had it. He passed the optimal stopping point, his options expired, and he was turned down by candidates four and five.


This became known as The Fussy Suitor Problem, later called the Secretary Problem and the Best Choice Problem. Turns out, sloppy seconds in love and life are unanimously unappreciated.

I’ll break it down for you. You have ten dates lined up. You have to commit or reject the bachelor or bachelorette following each interview. But once you pass on an option, you can’t go back. You can wait until the last suitor, but there aren’t refunds if he’s a dud.

I spent a chunk of my life peering into the minds of people in brain scanners while they played out the Fussy Suitor Problem. It always carried the naughty pleasure of reading someone’s diary, and was a surprisingly useful hack to determine which Research Fellow test subjects I should bother dating.

Some jump too early, some hang on too long, but some rare birds come right on time.

Lucky for us children of decision paralysis, I can tell you when to lock it down. Whether picking a mate, job hire, apartment, or gelato flavor, mathematician Martin Gardner calculated you should sample 36.8% of the total options and then commit to the best option relative to the options you’ve seen so far.

If Johannes had followed this rule, he would have stopped squarely on option four – the gal he realized he wanted after it was too late (11 x .368 = 4.04).

If you accept 25 dates in 2016, sample the first 9 fellows and cozy up to the next option who’s better than the best of the first batch. The one who ironed his shirt, loves his mother, is a good kisser, and thinks it’s endearing you ate both desserts. Alternatively, if you assume you’ll live to be 100 and you’re most likely to find your mate after the age of 18, then your prime settling age is 30 years old.

Not undercooked, not overcooked. But just right.

But alas, real life doesn’t work this way. Mates are not served one by one, dim sum style. The matchmaking math doesn’t add up in environments with unlimited choice, unending novelty, simultaneously presented options, and constantly shifting variables. If the Fussy Suitor Problem is Hinge, then reality is Tinder.

Introducing: Paradox of choice.

Our relationship with choice has grown fussier with each generation. My grandparents, for more reasons than one (Jess, we read your article and still don’t know what FOMO is), are often at a loss to understand the psychology of their Generation Y granddaughter. While they’ve committed to the same home, career, and marriage their entire lives, I’ve had three apartments, two jobs, and no relationships in the past year.

And so we have it: Mates, mates everywhere, but not a one to date. Since most of us don’t have the social capital or phenomenal swagger to set up a Kepler-style buffet of bachelors, here’s what science has to say about decision making, relationships, and when to delete your dating apps.

Five problems for Johanne’s five lost ladies.

Problem One: Mo’ suitors mo’ problems. If you expect dating studies to show that suitors presented with more options have greater enjoyment, enhanced satisfaction, and less regret, you’d be wrong. Daters with more potential dates were no more satisfied than daters presented with fewer — and they experienced more confusion and fatigue. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist turned nerd pop-culture superstar following his TED Talk on The Paradox of Choice, argues, “We end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.” Comedian Azia Ansari captures the paradox brilliantly telling the story of a woman en route to a first date: She spent the car ride on the way to her Tinder date – on Tinder – looking for better options.

Problem Two: Decision Fatigue. Thank god. There is a reason I need a nap and a therapy session after walking in to an H&M. It’s called decision fatigue. Your brain is a limited capacity processor, which conveniently overheats and shuts down when you feed it too many variables. This system meltdown often causes you to commit to nothing, or make abundant and “off-brand” selections. Which is why you leave Target either empty handed or with six sticks of deodorant, all of which smell terrible in hindsight.  When you’re mentally wiped, your brain makes frugal trade-offs to save energy, causing you to select options that are cheap and easy (read: clinger in waiting), or overly indulgent (read: out of your league).

Problem Three: Cognitive Heuristics. A dating study looked at over 3,700 decisions at speed-dating events, and found there were fewer matches when prospective mates were different in more attributes like education, profession, physical features, and age. When you have too many options, your brain relies on cognitive heuristics to make decisions. Cognitive heuristics simplify decision making by stripping out excess variables — so instead of making a decision based on the whole picture, you get fast and sloppy. You judge based off explicit variables, “He’s old. He’s pudgy. He put Splenda in his coffee… what is he, a psychopath?”, and ignore the good, gooey stuff hidden inside.

Problem Four: Overestimating your Option Pool. Turns out, we’re not as hot as we think. Just because you have access to options doesn’t mean they’re yours for the taking. Ever wonder why you feel smothered by choice until you turn on your “Open” sign? When the torrent of perceived suitors promptly slows to a trickle? Hey, it happens to the best of us. I’m just saying, don’t hold out for options that might not be yours to begin with. As the book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough forewarns, “She’d wasted her best years chasing an elusive Prince Charming who might not even exist. Meanwhile, her friends who’d “settled” for Mr. Good Enough ended up married to excellent husbands and fathers.”

Problem Five: Contextual Distortion. I have bad news. You’re sitting in an artificially sumptuous palace of choice. How can the guy hitting on you in line for a Pumpkin Spice Latte compete with your Christian Gray standards when you have your face glued to the “Manbuns of Instagram” account? It’s called contextual distortion: When we surround ourselves with truffle chocolate cake (even if it’s in a glass case), of course the M&M’s don’t look so great. Just don’t be disappointed when the cake turns out to be styrofoam.

It’s worthwhile to note that it took me longer to write this article than most others. Why? Because there are so many damn studies on decision making that I couldn’t decide what I wanted to say.

But in the New Year, I wish for you a suitor who makes you want to stop sampling. A suitor who makes you view commitment with less resentment than going to the gym on January 1st. A suitor who, like goldilocks, is not too early or too late, too easy or too hard, too eager or too cold. A suitor who allows you to see things clearly, make your decision easily, and become a little less freakin’ fussy.

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