Closeup of a number placard on a tree in the Temple of Heaven, Beijing

An intuitive statistics exercise

Published 2016-01-20

Most people are lousy at statistics and probabilities. The math behind it is counterintuitive. But here’s a fun thought experiment that requires NO MATH and which employs your lizard brain to reset your expectations…and it is secretly statistics.

If you’re older than a teenager you have probably met at least 1000 people. You might have 100 or 500 or 1000 people in your social circles. Facebook LinkedIn etc makes those circles even bigger.

I am talking about people you know a least a little. Where they live, do they have pets, do they have kids, are they married, etc. And are they alive or dead. (definitely include the dead people in this experiment)

Almost by definition, all these people are more-or-less people like you. Race, class, age, political persuasion, income, education, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, nationality, region. There are probably some outliers here but you have — for your demographic — a roughly representative statistical sample at your mental disposal.

Soooo...If you’re wondering what in your life you should lie awake worrying about at night, imagine what has happened to THOSE people. The people you know. The people just like you.

How many of them were kidnapped by strangers? Gunned down by religious extremists? Hit by asteroids? Eaten by cannibals? Whisked away to a blackops federal prison? Survived a home invasion? Died in a plane crash? Won the lottery? Found themselves accidentally embroiled in an international spy plot? All the terrible and exciting things you see on TV…

Unless you have a dramatically more exciting life than mine — and recognizing that, yes, there are outliers and maybe you are the rando who knows three people who have been eaten by cannibals — I’m betting the answer is “practically none.”

On the other hand:

  • How many of them had cancer? Heart attacks? Liver disease? Diabetes?

  • How many of them have been in car crashes? (Have YOU been in a car crash? I have.)

  • How many of them have been in serious earthquakes, or tornadoes, or floods (when I thought on this I was surprised by MY answer: more than I would have thought)

  • How many of them have been unemployed for a long time?

  • How many declared bankruptcy?

  • And how many of them have won more than $100 on the lottery?

Whatever wonderfully terrifying spectacle TV news wants you to scare you with…if it hasn’t happened to someone you know, it is not likely to happen to you. The reason TV is exciting is because it focuses on things that don’t happen very often. Every second you spend worrying about those things are seconds of your finite earthly life that you will never have again.

But all that boring stuff, the stuff that has happened to people you know…unemployment, diabetes, car wrecks, even the earthquakes (which are kind of exciting)…worrying about that stuff is not such a waste of time. If it has happened to even one or two of the 1000 or so people you’ve ever met, that is a thing you should consider might happen to you. If it’s happened to 100 of them (hellooo, heart disease!), you should worry a lot about that thing.