When the Stanford Marriage Pact (SMP) took campus by storm last year, it was titillating in a literal sense. We might be ashamed to admit it, but what busy, confused 20-year-old wouldn’t be intrigued by the prospect of meeting their perfect match? In its second year, though, the SMP offers a different thrill. It turns out that a brief survey is not the best way to determine lifelong romantic partnership, especially when it omits questions about basic personality type or social groups or physical attractiveness (to their credit, the creators of the survey have admitted as much).
Instead, the SMP has turned into a sort of campus-wide inside joke and social experiment. We fill out the survey not because we believe in its ability to find our soulmate, but because we just can’t wait to talk to our friends about their answers. It’s an excuse to gossip, to probe our peers, to implicitly judge what is “average” and “normal,” and to breach the third rails of polite conversation. How else could you acceptably ask that guy from your Econ class about kinky sex?
SMP’s latest email cashed in on a different primal fantasy: the prospect of knowing what our fellow students answered, under the promise of anonymity, to personal, contentious questions of values and desires. What follows are a series of statements which, according to the SMP’s 2018 Campus Report, generally characterize Stanford’s current undergraduate population:
- There are slightly more Republicans than Socialists and Communists.
- Catholics and Atheists have equivalent attitudes toward kinky sex.
- Hard drug use is more acceptable in a romantic partner than cigarette smoking.
- There are roughly four times as many homosexual men as there are bisexual men, and roughly four times as many bisexual women as there are homosexual women.
- As students get older, they become significantly less interested in social activism and significantly less likely to volunteer for political causes.
- Being thought of as spontaneous is extremely important.
- Men and women are equally as altruistic.
- The majority of men and women do not believe that gender roles exist for a good reason.
- Students enter Stanford thinking they are dumber than the average student and leave thinking they are smarter than them.
These are all facts, at least on average, if you trust the data. Here at Stanford, due to the unique geographic and cultural factors of a research university in Silicon Valley, I bet that most people do trust the data. I’m skeptical. It all seems too easy, even cheap—as long as data is tangentially involved in some conclusion, disagreement is heresy.
The view of data as an all-powerful panacea is especially dangerous because we still have the burden of interpretation. And this kind of subjective extrapolation gets us into trouble, because inevitably, we yearn for the data to tell a story. We take the “objective” data points and wedge them into our preconceived narrative like an ill-fitted puzzle piece. The SMP report itself is purposely structured in cohesive categories, begging us to determine their broad upshot.
Here’s one data-driven story, for example, taken directly from the report and some contextual knowledge: the typical student enters Stanford full of modesty and drive to change the world, but over time becomes cynical about politics, activism, and even the intelligence of their own classmates, and eventually sells out, abandoning their ambition to change the world in favor of a six-figure starting salary. But the same data fits a radically different interpretation: the typical student enters Stanford insecure but enthusiastic, and over time becomes more confident and realistic, in fact becomes more adult, and wisely abandons their vague idealism in favor of whatever practical passion they ultimately decide to pursue.
We can also consider two plausible stories about the homogeneity of our values and opinions. The first narrative says that we are all pretty darn alike. Men and women* feel similarly about their partner’s weight, their relative intelligence, and gender roles, and hold identical views on having difficult conversations in a relationship and inconveniencing themselves for a friend. All religious factions (except for Mormons) have similar sexual openness, more than six out of ten students identify with the same political party, and the vast majority of us want between two and three children. But the opposite narrative — that we are hopelessly divided — is also supported by the data. Religious sects disagree vehemently on whether their kids ought to be raised religious, and men are more likely than women to care about their partner’s weight, prefer politically incorrect humor, and support the perpetuation of gender roles. Students hold vastly different views with regard to drug and alcohol use, gender roles, and even how comfortable they would be with a gay child.
Which story should we believe? There is no right answer. Most likely, you’ll believe the one that seamlessly patches into your preconceived notions about our community. Or whichever version you hear from that guy in your Econ class. Still, we don’t blame the data. We crave it. Having the data means being in the know, especially when that data is our peers’ deepest secrets.
SMP’s true function is not as an exclusive Match.com, but instead a rather comprehensive census of campus values. It offers a picture of our particular slice of contemporary culture, albeit an inconclusive, piecemeal picture that is nevertheless fascinating for probably all of the wrong reasons. And all we can do is eagerly refresh our inbox, awaiting the next email.
*Per the report, “due to the relatively small size of our sample, we chose not to share insights from other genders to ensure the anonymity of those students.”