Why People Believe in the Improbable. Personal insight into the human brain

Thandarr
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Why People Believe in the Improbable. Personal insight into the human brain

In this essay I confess that I am a dumbass, but only in the interest of science.

I live in a state without a state lottery. I am perfectly aware that a state lottery is a tax on people who cannot do math. I understand that the odds of winning a lottery are so slim that merely thinking about buying a lottery ticket, much less actually buying one, is a poor allocation of resources. Yet from time to time, when traveling out of state, I will buy a lottery ticket on the theory that the daydreaming is worth the buck. I never expect to win. I know better. Intellectually I know that the chance of winning a lottery is so ephemeral that it should never enter into consideration.

Anyway, on this particular trip I was asked to acquire lottery tickets for two other people. So when I stopped at the first convenience store and gas station I asked the clerk for three lottery tickets. She gave me the three--but on one ticket. That wasn't what I wanted, but it was too late. I decided to go ahead and buy two more, this time telling her that they would remain separate. I would retain the three lottery tickets, although I was a bit miffed at myself for paying triple the fair market value of a twenty two million dollar daydream. Not only that, but nobody had advanced me the dollar to buy their ticket. Although I had no doubt I'd get those two dollars back, I had now invested five bucks into nothing.

To compound my dumbassery, upon arriving home, I forgot to deliver the lottery tickets to their intended recipients and recoup two fifths of my investment. I found them in my wallet a few days later. The drawing had happened. Nobody had asked me for the tickets.

Here's where the scientific insight comes in. I knew perfectly well that the chances of me having a winning lottery ticket in my wallet were effectively zero. Yet I began to worry about what I would do if one of these tickets was the winner. I was seriously concerned about it. There was a period of extreme discomfort as I realized that I might have a horrible moral and ethical dilemma on my hands. My heart raced a bit. I began to sweat. If one of those tickets won, I was screwed. Maybe every ticket had a one-fifth interest in the winnings. Yeah, that was it. But I knew that the two separate tickets were purchased for other people. Who got the winner if one won? For some reason the obvious solution of simply giving out the two tickets and collecting my two bucks anyway escaped me.

I got on the Internet to see whether I'd be facing the greatest moral and ethical problem of my life. I checked the numbers. Was there a winner? The tension was unbearable. Had fate picked this moment to teach this arrogant sneering skeptic the error of his ways?

Of course not. One ticket had about four of the eight or nine numbers. The others had an average of two. None of them was even close, which is what mathematics almost guaranteed me. In fact, out of the however many tickets were sold to everybody in the state, none was a winner. That result, too, was mathematically more probable than not.

It is well known that lottery ticket purchases go up as the jackpot grows. When buying a lottery ticket, people are more interested in the potential payoff than the chances of being the recipient of that payoff. This experience gave me some insight into the phenomenon. Even though I knew perfectly well that the chances of me winning the lottery, even with five tickets, were so insubstantial that they should not have given me any concern, my reptilian brain began to worry about the consequences.

Maybe this is a big part of why people believe weird things. Our brains are designed to react to the size of the reward, not the chance of getting it. Even though I know the odds, I could not keep my uncontrollable subconscious brain from reacting as if I was at risk for a problem.

I never delivered the lottery tickets. I never collected my two bucks. I have contributed five bucks to the education of children in another state, so I don't feel too bad about that. They need it. But I may have gotten more for my five bucks than I ever could have expected. I have a little more insight, based on personal experience, of why people believe bizarre things. If the payoff is great enough, maybe you can believe anything.


Beyond Saving
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Thandarr wrote: I got on

Thandarr wrote:
I got on the Internet to see whether I'd be facing the greatest moral and ethical problem of my life. I checked the numbers. Was there a winner? The tension was unbearable. Had fate picked this moment to teach this arrogant sneering skeptic the error of his ways?

 Suppose the unlikely occurred and one of those tickets was a winner, would you cease being a skeptic?

You knew it was mathematically improbable to win but you also knew it was possible for you to win. One can demonstratably prove that some people actually do win the lottery. The reaction you had was caused by your knowledge that you might win even though your rational thought told you it was extremely unlikely. It was a natural response to the possibility of a gigantic reward.

Thandarr wrote:
I have a little more insight, based on personal experience, of why people believe bizarre things. If the payoff is great enough, maybe you can believe anything.

Your post helps explain why people want to believe in bizarre things but how do people actually come to believe in them? For example, many people might have a "lucky" item that they bring with to the casino but deep down do they truly believe it improves their luck? I hope not. But from time to time you find someone who truly believes in their lucky item and would stake their lives on it. That is the point where wishful thinking becomes delusion.

I think there is a fundamental difference between believing the improbable might happen and believing the impossible will happen. Believing in the improbable is fun wishful thinking, believing in the impossible is insanity. No matter how big the imagined reward is, believing in the impossible is still a form of insanity.  

If, if a white man puts his arm around me voluntarily, that's brotherhood. But if you - if you hold a gun on him and make him embrace me and pretend to be friendly or brotherly toward me, then that's not brotherhood, that's hypocrisy.- Malcolm X