Probability and its Perplexities

You know, probability is an interesting thing. We always want it to work in the way that benefits us, despite it sometimes balling up its fists and insisting quite the opposite.

Winning the lottery? Ultimately, very unlikely. However, how many hopeful dreamers buy lottery tickets? Loads of us. Maybe this will be the time…

Applying sunscreen? Getting seven to eight hours of sleep? Ultimately, very important for our health. However, how many people consistently maintain these habits? Fewer people than logically makes sense, given the proclaimed benefits. I’ll make do without, just this once…

What’s more, a fixed probability value can look completely different based on the position we are viewing it from. If I am leading in a badminton match by more than ten points, I feel confident and in control, appreciating the odds. However, if I am losing by that very same amount? Man, how the deficit can so quickly scale in my head, becoming menacingly colossal, where only moments ago it had simply been a nice buffer zone.

Even a fixed probability value when observed from an objective standpoint can seem to have a mind of its own. 99% boasts a distinctive figurative taste compared to 90%. And yet the step down from 69% to 60% doesn’t seem nearly as big. Crazy, isn’t it?

We want that low probability. But wait, we don’t want that high probability. It’s funny, because we can’t just choose. Probability is the likelihood of an event occurring. In a general sense, it can’t be changed – it just is, defined by the equations and constraints that surround it. (On a related note, see this link for a serious but worthwhile Psychology Today read on “10 Ways We Get the Odds Wrong [and what to do about it].”)

Why, then, do we make so many life decisions by ignoring the odds, by pretending that we can bend probability to our will? Well, maybe because it’s not pretending. Probability isn’t the full picture; an extra element exists in the equation. In cases where probability is telling us one thing and our brains or hearts are telling us another…

We apply our own judgments and thoughts and interpretations to the situation, regardless of the way the odds lean. And we don’t look back.

For an intriguing look at the “psychology of judgment and decision making,” see this Broyhill Asset Management article on “The Fourfold Pattern [of Preferences].” The fourfold pattern is presented as a 2×2 matrix of High and Low Probability vs. Gains and Losses; it is excerpted from the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This matrix, and its relevance to prospect theory, helps us begin to decipher the “why” behind the numerous decisions we make every day.

So perhaps, if we want them, the probabilities are there. They always will be. Because I can’t avoid providing a bit of math, see this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy link called “Interpretations of Probability,” which does, I warn you, morph into a math lesson by the end. Now, if we choose not to listen to the math? Well, it’s only numbers. Who ever did anything great by giving up on an “impossible” goal?

Maybe that’s what’s so amazing about this. Probabilities are just numbers. In the 1980 movie Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, C-3PO says to Han Solo, “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.” Han Solo then replies, “Never tell me the odds,” and he promptly proceeds to prove his point.

What about in real life, you ask? Well, in the February 2017 Super Bowl, one team came back to win the game after a 25-point deficit. That has never been done before in Super Bowl history, and it is only one of a handful of times that it has ever occurred in all of NFL history. I don’t care which team you are rooting for, and I don’t care about the promises that the original probabilities failed to keep. What I do care about, most of all, is that this example shows us that it is never too late.

It is never too late to come back.

Go do what you were meant to do, whether the first step is as small as buying a lottery ticket or as big as following your life dream. See my No Excuses blog post for motivation, if you need it. And if the odds are against you, don’t worry. They’re sure to come around, at some point or another. They may just be a step behind.

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