« Death to WhiteyEarly Honeymoon? »

Why Are Humans So Bad With Statistics?


  04:05:04 am, by Nimble   , 503 words  
Categories: Thoughts, Science

Why Are Humans So Bad With Statistics?

In light of a recent contest win, I am reminded of statistics, and the very human tendency to think of luck going in 'streaks', praying for good weather, and the strange rituals that purport to help one's home team win.

I'm not totally immune to such feelings. My head can override my heart, but it's interesting that the emotions are still there. I think that may provide a clue to the mystery.

I would propose that people are astoundingly bad at intuitive statistics because they react to everything the same way they react to people.

This is the realm of behavioural psychology. Our pets do very similar things. Our children are held in its grip. If you do something, and get positive feedback, you'll do it again. If you get positive reinforcement no matter what you do, you'll do less. If you get punished for doing something, you'll begin to fear, although you may try bargaining, or 'getting away' with the behaviour in other circumstances.

These tactics work very well when used on people.

They do not work very well at all on weather, lottery winnings, people you don't talk to, sports heroes whose games you never see, etc.

Regardless, circumstances out of your control will make you feel a certain way. Losing a lottery will make you angry, jealous or depressed. A celebrity coming down with cancer will make you feel indignant, angry, fearful. Very much like a person can... but it doesn't respond like a person would.

die!Although - it can seem to. This is where our judgement can break down. You may win the lottery next time, or more insidiously, you may get "closer" (if only it was a 38 instead of 39, a 4 instead of 5, and a 20 instead of 21!), the weather may get better on cue, the celebrity may have their illness go into remission. It plays with our sense of reward and punishment.

If it happens the way we want, we're rewarded for whatever it was we were doing, whether it be wishing really hard, wearing the scarf we hardly ever wear, what have you. If it doesn't go our way, the feeling (though maybe not the thought) is that it's because we were 'bad' somehow - though the association with a particular thing is looser. We may try wearing/thinking something different next time, but the impact is lessened because we don't know if next time will be successful.

There are certain things we can do to actually tip the balance. We can actually tell the people we want to get well that we want them to get well (instead of, or even just in addition to, praying), we can enter more contests, we can increase our "luck" simply by going out and doing things that are more likely to result in recognition, new experiences, or even just that make us feel good... because feeling bad can keep us from taking advantage of opportunities right in front of our faces.

So go out there and tip the scales...

...with something real! :)

No feedback yet