The key to a happy marriage could lie in maths

Prof David Sumpter helps Premier League footballers up their game, but his tips could help us all improve our health and relationships

Prof David Sumpter maths expert
Prof David Sumpter thinks he has found the equation for a fruitful marriage Credit: Mikael Wallerstedt

When Prof David Sumpter has a problem, maths, inevitably, yields the answer. That doesn’t only apply in his role as an applied mathematics lecturer at Uppsala University, Sweden, but in unlikely places too, from his marriage and fitness regimen to advising Premier League teams and the England squad.

His work in the latter wasn’t on the cards when he started out, but Prof Sumpter said: “What I was most interested in was ways of reasoning. That’s why I became an applied mathematician in the first place – you can also apply them in your everyday life.” 

That theory has led him to write Four Ways of Thinking, which suggests a mathematical mindset can be used for even the most quotidian problems. The follow-up to bestseller, The Ten Equations that Rule the World, Soccermatics and Outnumbered – which has been translated into 10 languages – is the academic’s attempt to reframe our way of thinking about, well, thinking.

His four ways are based on a 1984 algorithm written by former child prodigy and theoretical physicist Stephen Wolfram. First is the kind that is stable – systems “which reach and stay at an equilibrium,” like dominoes falling, or a stone rolling down a hill. 

Next up is periodic thinking – repeating patterns, like walking, cycling, or anything intrinsic to our daily routine. 

Third on the list, chaos, is that which is unpredictable, such as whether it will rain tomorrow, or the flip of a coin. 

And finally, there is complex thinking, which relates to systems from our relationships to major organisations like the Government. 

Prof Sumpter believes a mathematical mindset can be used for even the most quotidian problems

Applying mathematical models to everyday life takes balance, of course. “If my wife thinks I’m reasoning mathematically about her, she’s not going to be so thrilled about that,” said Prof Sumpter. 

Still, maths has taught him that even bust-ups between spouses can be radically altered by tinkering with a few probabilities – and that “there are only two worthwhile arguments: Class I arguments, on their way to a stable resolution; and class IV arguments, where important new ideas are discussed but might never be resolved. 

“Class IIs – recurrent bickering over the same contentious point – and class III, chaotic back-and-forths where we talk over each other, are to be avoided.” 

By classifying the kind of dispute at hand, said Prof Sumpter, it is easier to assess “how I might move from class II to class I, or from class III to class IV. I can also think about how I can make my class I arguments converge to stability more rapidly”. 

Mapping out the probabilities of what might spark and escalate spats – along with a foray into biology, analysing the inner workings of ant trails and honeybee colonies – laid the foundations for Sumpter’s move into top-level football. 

These insights have become so crucial (he currently works with an elite Premier League team; his contract forbids him from saying which) that he has set up a company offering statistical services to those in the UK and beyond, including FC Barcelona. 

His work involves calculating how players move together, how they open up space, and the manipulation of timings and tactics in order to translate into match wins. His hasn’t been the most traditional route for a mathematician. 

“I’ve had a strange career,” he mulled over. “But I think it’s very much down to this idea that mathematics is a way of thinking, rather than a particular activity.”

Four Ways of Thinking by David Sumpter (£18.99, Allen Lane) is out now

Do you think maths could hold the key to a healthy relationship? Share your thoughts below