Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Fifty-fifty Chance

I am a man who works in Burgess Hill, though I live in Hove. Because of this, and because I do not own a car, I will on most days travel to work by train. I buy season tickets for the obvious reasons.

Sometimes, I go without a season ticket for other reasons you can guess at yourself if you want to. These reasons do not matter. On those occasions I buy a return ticket. I buy them from the machine whenever possible because that is my preference. Again for reasons that you’d might as well speculate over.

Once I pluck the two tickets from the harsh plastic lips of the machine I tend to put them straight into a pocket. It could be any of my pockets and it makes no difference which one I choose. I will then walk towards the automatic barriers, en route to the relevant platform. When I am nearing the barriers, I reach into my pocket to retrieve the correct ticket to get me through. I am the sort of person who likes to have the right ticket ready just before I need it, so that I can place the ticket into the machine’s reading slit, snatch it from the proffering slit and walk through the opened barriers with no break in my step.

For the journey out of the station, you need the ticket marked OUT, and on the return to the station, you need the ticket marked RTN. Now, we are at the point that I wish to discuss. As I walk towards the barriers, I could take out both tickets, find the one I need, and then use it. For some reason, I prefer to blindly grab one of the tickets from within my pocket and leave my fate to chance. Will chance deliver the right ticket into my fingers, allowing my smooth passage through the barriers? Or will chance guide my hopeful digits to the wrong ticket – causing me to reach the barrier and pause there, blocking the way and quickly blushing, while I search my pocket for the other one? It’s pretty much a 50/50 chance.

In the past, I had the impression that I was not a lucky person. That the universe had been configured in such a way that the fair share of fifty-fifties that I was due had simply not been allocated to me. You get lucky people and you get unlucky people. It’s nothing to be proud or ashamed of, just like being male or female is nothing to be proud or ashamed of. You are simply born as one or the other. I was born unlucky, so I thought. As I would reach into my pocket, in front of the looming barrier, I would fully expect to fish out the wrong ticket. For confirmation I would look into my hand and see the wrong ticket, and I would sigh and say “I knew it”. Another piece of evidence is thrown onto the mounting pile of proof that I am simply unlucky.

Of course, sometimes I would reach into the pocket and pull out the very ticket I needed. This I would meet with raised eyebrows and the pursed lips of mild incredulity and then continue on my way. On the next occasion I would, as ever, fully expect the wrong ticket to emerge, and so it would and I would remark internally “normal service resumed” or other words like that.

As I read more books about science and the like, I started to think about actually analysing the results of this daily ticket-fate scenario. Of course, I didn’t actually write anything down, I just decided to start from scratch and see what happened. Over the days, I would greet whichever ticket that came out of my pocket with neither surprise nor submission. Sure enough, over a couple of weeks, it worked out to be pretty much fifty-fifty. A lumpy fifty-fifty, sure, where two consecutive days would often give the same result, but a trend approaching fifty-fifty was quite apparent. The simplest case of regression toward the mean.

The easy shattering of this silly illusion was wonderful. I had meaningful evidence that my luck levels were not manifested in this universe after all! I knew more certainly now that there was no mechanism linking the luck I had been granted at birth to how situations would play themselves out in the real world. There was no arbiter of personal luck looking out to make sure that our allocation is not exceeded and then moulding time and space to ensure the correct result within this allocation.

I could now look back on all those times where I had expected the worst but was actually faced with the right ticket, when I had ignored the significance of this result. What had been nothing but an essentially superstitious notion of luck had influenced the very structure of my thoughts. I would see results that contradicted my idea and dismiss them as freaks. I would see results that confirmed my notions and add them straight to my internal data pool to take their place at the foundations of my thoughts, shoring up this lazy idea of luck and all the other flabby prejudices that grew there.

Now I stride carefree across the station concourse and play my fifty-fifty gamble, knowing with some certainty that overall sometimes I will benefit and sometimes I will not. I still catch myself saying “knowing my luck” in conversation, but now a little alarm sounds to remind me that this is a pointless statement. In the same way that I have trained myself not to automatically say “Bless you” when somebody sneezes, I will train myself not to say “knowing my luck” and not to so lazily attach a value to what I perceive as my share of luck. Nothing good comes of choosing to continually add evidence to your prejudices, especially when the relevance of the data itself is judged so very subjectively.


  1. Quite right. But I can't personally imagine ever not saying bless you to a sneeze. For me it's just a little social stroke along life's highway, not superstition. Good science work though.

  2. Can your luck allocation change over time? A shift in the planets perhaps, realigning the wrongs and adjusting the balance?

  3. In a word, Pigeons: No, you hippy. Ain't no allocation.

  4. Saying 'bless you' is to me being polite but it does seem to become a habit, in a way...saying it to people who don't deserve it ;). Do you not say it because of its link towards religion? :)
    I thoroughly enjoyed the talk of science and train tickets, yay!

    Jo and her spaceships.

  5. Cheers Jo!
    On the "Bless you" thing, firstly I discovered that - not being a deity - I do not have the ability to bless, so it's an empty statement verging on an outright lie.
    Secondly, yes, I do resent religion having these tiny behavioural holds over our silly little ways. If someone sneezes heavily, I tend to say "oh dear"