The Odds Are in Your Favor

oddsToday something happened that made me quite happy and it has nothing to do with hunger, but a lot with games. Both my favorite teams, USA and Germany, made it through the group stage of the World Cup in Brazil. If every game was a toss of a coin, the odds of one team being among the 16 of 32 teams to advance past the group stage is 50%, the odds that two specific teams make is therefore 25% (0.5 x 0.5 = 0.25). Sounds pretty slim, doesn’t it? But if those two are in the same group (17%) and this group is even called “the Group of Death” then what happened today is quite remarkable or in other words unlikely.

We as a society celebrate the extraordinary. We are delighted by stories of rare luck and love stories about unlikely heroes. It seems we are equipped with a built-in probability calculator that accesses every situation in milliseconds just to tell us whether something is likely or unlikely to happen. I assume this calculator was necessary for our caveman ancestors to be able to make quick life-or-death decisions and it surely helps us in similar situations today.

Even in less serious moments, it feels great to succeed in something that we considered impossible if it’s just something small like hitting a hoop while throwing blindly over one shoulder. In general, however, we miss a lot of those happy moments, because our probability calculator is really weak when we have time to think longer than split seconds. We don’t even try because we think the chances are too slim to succeed.

Here’s an example: What do you think the chances are that among 23 people two celebrate their birthday on the same day? Would you say high or low? 365 days, 30 people? (more…)