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Married at First Sight: The science behind matchmaking

Marriage is one of the biggest commitments someone will ever have to make; so why not let science decide it for you? This is the premise of Channel 4’s ‘Married at First Sight’. A panel of experts spend numerous months collecting and analysing physical and psychological data of thousands of singles. But what is the science helping these individuals fall in love?

As Dr Anna Manchin, an evolutionary anthropologist, states, “evolution ultimately wants us to have a baby”. This is based on the likelihood of each individual successfully having and raising a child, which is an overriding factor when choosing a partner. Quantitatively this is shown by the mate value, calculated by assessing a person’s physical and behavioural attributes. Applicants are first assigned a specific mate value, before being paired with individuals of a similar value. Scientifically, this means there is a mate value match for everyone.

Applicants are first assigned a specific mate value, before being paired with individuals of a similar value

Physical features measured during this social experiment include height, facial symmetry and build. Data evaluated by the team at ‘Married at First Sight’ gives the most attractive values for some ratios of these measurements, such as 0.7 for a woman’s waist to hip ratio and 1.6 for a man’s shoulder to waist ratio. Facial symmetry is a known sign of attractiveness. We are initially programmed to be symmetrical, however external factors can affect a foetus’ development leading to asymmetry of facial features. A lower level of asymmetry therefore implies that a person has stronger genes which have countered the environmental challenges faced in the womb – a desirable quality to have in a potential partner.

Genetics also contribute to a person’s mate value. 17 genes which control how people think and behave in relationships are assessed, which are associated with 4 key chemicals: oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and beta endorphin. Oxytocin, sometimes known as the love chemical, is related to the OXTR gene, which in a specifically strong version is called the ‘nesting’ gene. If a person carries this they can show a particularly strong desire to want to be in a long term relationship. During the show this tends to be a key gene which the experts want to match, however as Dr Minchin points out “it is not deterministic of a successful relationship”.

The success of the science is yet to be proven in the UK

In addition to physical attributes, behaviour plays a key role in calculating a person’s mate value. Psychometric tests, containing over 1,000 questions, are used to find similarities between people, as this is proven to produce better matches than a couple with lots of differences. ‘The relationship test’ is one of these, which determines a person’s romantic attachment style, broadly put into 3 categories: secure, anxious and dismissive. Successful pairings include where both people are secure, or where the man is dismissive and the woman is anxious.

Despite scepticism, Dr Mark Coulson – an associate professor in psychology – believes that “love can be studied scientifically”, and true to their word the experts have produced 4 matches thus far. However the success of the science is yet to be proven in the UK, with all matches made in the first series ending in divorce. The result of this year’s couples is yet to be seen but one thing is for sure: true love is out there for everyone – science says so!


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