What are the chances....

My review of Chris Gosden’s book on the history of magic for Reason is now online. I find the ways our ancestors looked for patterns and magic in the world fascinating - and the way we continue to do so, even if we try to give our beliefs a rational gloss.

We all want greater control of our situations than we have. Many people are willing to hand this lack of control over to a higher power, to believe that their fate is in the hand of God. Others look for other patterns and paths to give themselves the illusion of steering destiny.

Even when we ask other to send us “luck” for a job interview, we are hoping to will our fate in some way. I’ve always tended to be a pessimistic person: if I go for a job interview knowing there are 3 candidates, I don’t think “I’ve got a good shot”, I think “There’s a 66% chance I won’t get it”. Looking at things with a gambler’s eye.

I think in terms of chances or odds with a lot of things, and I’ve been fascinated with gambling and odds-making since childhood. We think of risks in different ways (and the more “spectacular” the bad outcome the greater salience we give it). Hence we think of shark attacks as more likely than they are - although as Freakonomics pointed out, more people are killed by falling tv sets.

This week someone in Maryland picked the numbers that would make them $730 million dollars richer (minus tax). The chances of having that happen are remote, yet people still buy tickets. I wrote for TIME when Powerball changed its formula, setting the stage for jackpots approaching a billion.

And “smart” people constantly look for ways to improve their chances. A kind of magical belief in itself. That they would be smarter than the engineers or lottery statisticians who designed the games, that they would somehow outsmart a lottery company or casino. Of course, some people have, so the possibility is there in theory. But so’s the possibility of being eaten by a bear. (My odds-brain tells me neither lottery windfall nor bear-mauling is going to happen to me).

But our lotteries hit that part of the brain that thinks “what if?”. And say “it could be you”.