Billions of dollars are spent on global lotteries every single week. Players are attracted by the life-changing jackpots and the small ticket price, but they ignore the ridiculously high odds simply because the human brain can’t quite comprehend odds that high.
It hears something like, “You’re more likely to be hit by a meteor on the way to buying a lottery ticket then you are to win the lottery” and it processes that into “but I have the same chance of winning as everyone else and someone wins every week, so my odds must be good”. We can’t quite understand just how many tickets are sold or how many possible permutations there are, because it’s hard to visual those sort of odds and we’re very visual creatures.
With that in mind, let’s see if we can make things a little more visual.
The Stadium Equation
Imagine you’re in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. It is one of the biggest stadiums in the US with a capacity of over 100,000. There is a capacity crowd and the camera crew have been told to focus on a single person somewhere in the stadium. What do you think the chance is that you’re going to be that person?
Pretty slim, right? After all, the average fan goes to a dozen games a year, often in much smaller stadiums and with camera crews that pick-out hundreds of fans a game, and they never see themselves on TV.
Now imagine that 1 game takes place every day for 10 months of the year and you only attend 1 of those games. Throughout that time, the camera crew gathers footage and after all of this footage has been collected, they receive word from their producer to publish a still image of a single fan from one of those 300 games.
Do you fancy your chances of that being you? Of course not, yet the odds of it being you are ten times more likely than your odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot.
Personal Injury Relation
Every year, there are over 5 million dog bites in the USA and around 20,000 slip and fall accidents. A significant number of these result in personal injury claims being filed, of which around 5% go to court. Of those, only around 10% will succeed.
In other words, even if you have a serious slip and fall accident and are one of the few who make it to court (most are settled outside of court, as discussed on this site from a group of personal injury lawyers in Charleston, WV) the odds of you winning are still very low.
So, forget about the meteor equation here for a moment and imagine this: you have a 5 minute walk to the shop to buy a lottery ticket. In that time you are bitten by a dog and you suffer a slip and fall accident. You get a lawyer, make a claim, make it all of the way to court, and are successful.
All of that is still around 10 to 15 times more likely than you winning the lottery. You’re defying odds at every step of the way, not to mention the seriously unlucky turn you had on your way to buying a ticket, but the odds of all that happening are still higher than the odds of that ticket scooping the grand prize.
The Stupid Odds
Some articles on this subject don’t really do the odds justice because they’re not looking at it in a way that makes sense. They say, for instance, that you have a 1 in 11,500 chance of winning an Oscar, and they’ll claim odds of less than 1 in 10 million for being (or dating) a supermodel or even being president of the USA.
But what if you’re not an actor or have no discernible talent? What if you’re under the age required to be US president, have no political experience (although that no longer seems to matter) or have no intention of running for office?
These odds are misleading and the end result is readers who believe that certain things are more likely than they actually are.