Why you might win the lottery someday. Enter the improbability principle!
It's been a while ago, but when the American James Bozeman won Florida's lottery twice, I'm assuming that you – just like me – thought that was totally unfair. We all know that the odds of winning the lottery are teeny-tiny. It is less likely than obtaining 25 heads in a row when tossing a coin.
Yet there are people who win the lottery. And yes, there are people who get heads 25 times in a row. In the casino of Monte Carlo on August 18, 1913, a roulette ball even fell 26 times on black. That is statistically even more unlikely.
If the chance of winning is so small, how is it that people actually win the lottery? Usually there is a winner every week. How is it possible that such incredibly unlikely events continue to take place?
It’s not like these are the only unlikely cases that occur. What do you think of the fact that two men, both named Franz Richter, both born in Silesia and 19 years old, both volunteers in the Austrian army after the First World War, were hospitalized at the same time (at the same hospital)? Or of the fact that the Titanic, who was considered unsinkable, sank anyway?
Enter: the improbability principle!
You probably already had similar experiences. Maybe you know someone with the same name or the same birthday, or both. Or maybe you've ever experienced something happening in real life, while at that very moment a song is playing on the radio that describes the same thing. I am already curious about extra examples. Feel free to share them.
If all these things are so unlikely, why do they continue to happen?
Thus the answer lies in the improbability principle, which states that very unlikely events are actually very common. If you think that is contradictory, you are not the only one. But the five scientific laws that together form this principle show that it is not a contradiction. We should actually expect highly unlikely events to occur, and this on a daily basis.
Those five laws are the law of inevitability, the law of the truly large numbers, the law of selection, the law of the probability lever and the law of near enough. You may already know the first two laws, even if you do not recognize the names. For example, the law of the truly large numbers states that if we give an occurrence sufficient opportunities to happen, it is almost certain that it will happen. Even if that event seems very unlikely in itself.
So if you toss a coin enough times, you can expect of getting your coin to come up 25 times heads in a row. (But do not sit down and wait for it: you probably would have to involve your offspring and theirs in the experiment)
The law of the probability lever
This law states that small changes in circumstances increase the chance that unlikely events take place. Suppose you and a friend separately bought tickets for your flight to a conference in the US, but it appears that you are sitting next to each other during the flight. Now you may think that with the approximately five hundred seats in a Boeing 747 an exceptional coincidence took place: a chance of about one in five hundred, right? But you traveled in the same class, you were both alone (so you did not book adjacent seats) and so on. The circumstances were such that your purchases were not an arbitrary choice out of five hundred seats.
These strangers met on a plane. They were sitting next to each other and took this epic selfie. Yes, they look like twins, but they don't know each other. Speaking of a coincidence.
The law of the truly large numbers
The laws of the improbability principle often work together. Take for example James Bozeman, the man who won the lottery twice: someone with extraordinary luck. But if you take into account how many lotteries are held worldwide, how many tickets are sold week after week, it becomes almost inevitable that someone will win the lottery more than once, even more than twice. That is simply the law of the truly large numbers.
But the law of the probability lever also plays a role here: people who win lotteries usually continue to buy tickets. In fact, they often buy multiple tickets per week. They can finally afford it! Of course this increases the chance that they win a second time.
The law of near enough
The law of near enough states that improbable events are much more likely if we formulate our definitions of a coincidence sufficiently broad. In the media, for example, people who have won the second prize are often also referred to as 'winners'. By using this definition, the probability that someone wins twice is significantly increased.
What a coincidence!
The other two laws, the law of inevitability and the law of selection, also increase the likelihood that seeming coincidences take place. For example, the law of inevitability states that, of all possible outcomes, one will certainly take place. All inhabitants of a country have a very small chance that they will become the next prime minister, but it is inevitable that it will be one of them.
The law of selection states that the chance that seemingly highly unlikely events will take place becomes considerably larger if you choose the right data for it. You can change probabilities if you have a choice after the event. Think of someone who eventually finds a lost object and says: "it was the last place I was looking for!" What a coincidence! Yet it is less coincidental than you think, because afterwards he or she stopped searching.
If you combine the five laws of the improbability principle, you will see that the most unimaginable events take place. Let us all quickly buy a lottery ticket!