NewsBusiness & Technology

How the Stanford Marriage Pact spread to more than 60 campuses in a year

Jan. 2, 2022, 7:37 p.m.

The Marriage Pact has brought together more than 200,000 students nationwide since its origin in 2017 as a final project for a Stanford economics class. By collecting survey responses and applying a proprietary algorithm, this online service seeks to pinpoint, optimize and match the most compatible individuals for friendships and romantic relationships.

Today, the Marriage Pact has been launched at over 60 college campuses. Most of these sanctioned spin-offs started in the past year.

Within a week of Marriage Pact’s arrival to Duke University in January, for example, 4,500 students signed up — roughly two-thirds of the undergraduate population and 30% of students overall. Shortly thereafter, one student’s TikTok post about the survey received roughly 100,000 likes.

“I think most people sign up for the very fact that their friends are doing it,” said Liam McGregor ’20, co-founder of the Marriage Pact. He and co-founder Sophia Sterling-Angus ’19, who met early on in their time at Stanford and had continually developed a working relationship, began the project with a question about matching algorithms: “What if we didn’t give you the best, we just gave you the backup?”

To some, the Marriage Pact may be a new way to discover meaningful connections with members of the community; to others, it may be the next installment in a series of existing outlets for satisfying carnal desire. In other cases, it is viewed as an insurance policy against marital disaster.

“It’s been amazing to see what this experience does for different people,” McGregor said. After leaving his data science job at Microsoft last year, he has taken on a full-time executive role at the Marriage Pact. Sterling-Angus is actively a senior business analyst at McKinsey & Company.

Professor Paul Milgrom M.S. ’78 Ph.D. ’79, who taught ECON 136: “Market Design” to McGregor and Sterling-Angus in 2017, said in an email statement that it was “totally amazing” to see the Marriage Pact come to life, adding that “Liam has a great chance of making the Marriage Pact into a business.”

This fall, 5,345 Stanford students once again participated in the Marriage Pact survey online, expressing various levels of agreement to statements like “I would keep a gun in the house” and “Gender roles exist for good reasons” in search of their companion. Roughly 3 to 4% of Marriage Pact survey respondents go on to date for a year or longer, which McGregor called “hitting the lottery.” Only 1 to 2% of matches on traditional dating apps end up meeting each other at all, he added.

The majority of heterosexual couples in the U.S. meet online nowadays, according to research data from sociology professor Michael Rosenfeld. As fewer Americans meet through third-person mediation, roles that families, neighborhoods and houses of worship traditionally would play are falling to the wayside — a trend whose inflection traces back to World War II. Friend-based mediation has also been on the decline, starting in 1995, as have overall American marriage rates.

The Marriage Pact is a “clever innovation,” Rosenfeld wrote to The Daily. However, he also said that it is important not to attribute too much significance to the “magic of the matching algorithm.”

When it comes to matchmaking platforms, the algorithm is not so intricate, according to Rosenfeld. “It’s mostly who’s like you, which is a pretty simple algorithm, and then it’s up to you to decide whether that other person is really your cup of tea or not,” he said. “The gamification of it is not that different from the gamification of real life.”

Rosenfeld also said that there is no evidence that relationships mediated through friends, family or religious community members are any more fulfilling or enduring than relationships formed in different or more abstract ways.

“Once you’re in a physical relationship with somebody you met online, it doesn’t matter how you met,” he said, adding that online dating offers opportunities to meet people outside of one’s preexisting social network. “I don’t buy into that particular brand of technophobia.”

It is possible that students now are “even more eager than usual to mix and meet” after months of isolation. In his research, Rosenfeld found that the people who were sheltered in place with a spouse or partner had a “much less negative experience of the pandemic,” whereas many single adults have been yearning for the companionship of which lockdowns deprived them.

How does McGregor think the youth will fare at this juncture?

“The saddest thing is that dating in the 21st century is …” McGregor’s voice trailed off, and he spoke again: “It’s very gamified.”

For nearly half of U.S. adults, dating has gotten more difficult over the last decade, according to a 2020 report from Pew Research Center. Women are twice as likely to regard physical and emotional risk as worsening challenges, while 65% of single men cite the shifting public sphere in the #MeToo era.

The survey does not ask whether the respondent is looking for a long-term relationship, a fling or something between the two, though McGregor did say that the Marriage Pact is “the single worst product you could invent for finding someone to hook up with.” No information about one’s appearance or motives is collected, but current relationship status is.

“We found that 10 or 20% of people who do the Marriage Pact are in long-term relationships already,” he said. “It’s kind of interesting.”

New features for Marriage Pact are on the way, and the team is seeking beta testers. The roadmap on the company website currently lists its Dialog feature as personalized, data-driven questions for daily reflection, and it is coming this month. The other feature on the list, Soulmate Radar, notifies users when they have entered the vicinity of a compatible individual, based on their current location. It will begin rolling out to select cities, one by one, sometime in the next one to two months.

“They’re fun questions,” McGregor said in reference to the survey. “At the end of the day, though, I think it’s about creating a great experience that guides you on a little journey of yourself.”

This article has been corrected to reflect that as of December 2017, the Marriage Pact no longer uses the deferred-acceptance algorithm and now has a proprietary one. The Daily regrets this error.

Matthew Turk ’24 is a managing editor for The Stanford Daily. He leads the mobile app development team as well and is majoring in computer science. This summer, Matthew is a software engineering intern at The Washington Post. His novels, An Invincible Summer (2021) and Baba Yaga (2022), are in stores. Ask Matthew about astrophysics, football and the automotive industry. Contact him at mturk ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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