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Why you have no idea what the future has in store

Charlie Ambler

Maybe one of the unique things about human minds, compared to those of other animals, is our ability to imagine possible futures. But this ability, which has given the human race a crucial evolutionary advantage, has its flaws.

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I spoke with Matthew Jenssen, a mathematician who obtained his masters from Cambridge and is currently pursuing a PhD at the London School of Economics. He specializes in combinatorics— part of which involves the study of large networks and probability. I asked him about how humans misconstrue probability. Firstly, he explains, there’s an effect known as the Gambler’s Fallacy. “Basically, the Gambler’s Fallacy is the idea that if you do a coin toss and you flip 10 heads in a row, the universe needs to restore order and you’re due some tails. In reality, this isn’t true. The coin toss is an isolated random event.”  

So why are we so easily misled? It turns out there is another phenomenon at work, this one called the Law of Large Numbers.  “If you flip a coin a billion times, you will roughly see 50/50 heads and tails. It would seem like nature is trying to balance itself out, right? Wrong. What happens with the Law of Large numbers is— let’s say we did flip 10 heads in a row— the small scale effect will be diluted over time. Small unlikely events get smoothed out.” In other words, with enough distance even a fairly jagged line, starts to look smooth. Think of your life as a billion coin tosses: events, decisions, thoughts. At times we may land on heads 10 times in a row. Other times, tails 10 times in a row. According to the Law of Large Numbers, neither of these states of ‘good luck’ or ‘bad luck’ is reliably indicative of what will happen next. Of course, life isn’t just random, our actions do make a difference. As Jenssen puts it, “Life isn’t memoryless like the coin toss— it’s more complicated. You can do things today that might benefit you years from now.” But at the very least this suggests that a) the stories we tell ourselves about the future may not be true and b) if we don’t know what will happen next it’s a good idea to get the most of out the moment we happen to be in. This one right now. So if we want to have a good future, maybe instead of starting out with a preconceived idea of how we think it will turn out, or how we’d like it to turn out, the best thing we can do is to be open to the opportunities of each passing moment.

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...the best thing we can do is to be open to the opportunities of each passing moment.

Charlie Ambler

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