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By Sex therapist and relationship counselor
TODAY contributor
updated 2/7/2008 1:30:09 PM ET 2008-02-07T18:30:09

How many bad dates do you need to go on before you find the one? The answer may be as simple as one, two, three.

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Anyone who’s dated knows it’s a numbers game. All it takes is one person to set you on the path toward happily-ever-after — or to add another bad date to the list you’re hoping to laugh at one day. But how do you know that once you do meet Mr. or Ms. Special, another, more attractive, more compatible, more everything-you’ve-ever-wanted prospect isn’t right around the corner? In a world of too many choices, dating distress often comes down to "what if" as much as it does to a lack of desirable partners. (Other names for this phenomenon include "The grass is always greener" and the ever-popular "I want what I can’t have" syndromes.)

Fortunately, some researchers have whittled down the maddening variety of dating in the modern world to a simple, single number. Cognitive science all-stars Peter Todd, Ph.D., of Indiana University in Bloomington, and Geoffrey Miller, Ph.D., of the University of New Mexico, used advanced computer simulations to determine the best approach to finding lasting love.

Todd and Miller applied a well-known system of hypothetical decision-making to the unwieldy world of dating. It’s called the "secretary problem," a situation in which a person must pick the best secretary from a group of applicants who appear in random order, drawn from a pool whose quality is not known. Once rejected, applicants cannot be recalled.

Sound familiar? The "secretary problem" captures the risky speculation we all entertain when dating: Will another date make mincemeat of this current, pretty-good date? Who among us hasn’t rejected a great guy or gal because of the fantasy that a better person is around the corner?

Well, Todd and Miller found that the solution to the secretary problem — and your dating problem — requires sampling a certain proportion of people, remembering the best of them, and then picking the next person who is even better.

So what’s the magic number? In the secretary problem, the ideal percentage for sampling is 37 percent of a pool of 100 applicants. That means it would make sense to initially sample 37 people, remember the best of the best, and then pick the next candidate who meets or exceeds that standard.

Now, in the real world of dating there are many, many more prospects than 100 (last count, there were nearly 100 million singles if you count all ages) and for many of us, even dating just 37 people would be far too tiring. You also might be thinking, "Please, I’ve already dated my 37 guys or gals, I don’t need to sample any more candidates. I’m sampled to death!"

Rest assured: You don’t need to go out and date 37 people. Going back to their advanced computer simulations, Miller and Todd raised the number of potential candidates from 100 to 1,000 and proved, to the relief of singles everywhere, that a little bit of searching indeed goes a long way. According to their research, in a group of 1,000 potential mates, only 1 to 2 percent needs to be sampled.

But you do need to set your "aspiration level" — your ideal mate based on a realistic view of who’s available and who you can attract, without wasting your time by dating ad nauseam —and date those people you consider to be in the top 25 percent.

In other words, you have to go on roughly 10 first dates, with mates who are close to your ideal. If after 10 dates there’s someone you want to go back to and he or she is available, then go for it. But give yourself those 10 first dates.

So get out there with a fresh set of eyes and set your aspiration level. I believe that dating and finding love should be like buying a piece of art — you need to be captivated by someone you want to take home and frame, but all too often, we're walking around with our tiny frames trying to fit people into them. We're looking for something/someone rather than really seeing. So dismantle the frame, take some risks and give yourself 10 dates!

Ian Kerner is a sex therapist, relationship counselor and New York Times best-selling author of numerous books, including the recently published “Sex Detox: A Program to Detoxify and Rejuvenate Your Love Life.” He was born and raised in New York City, where he lives with his wife, two young sons and plump Jack Russell terrier.

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