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Two sides of the same coin?

A few years ago, I was the “go to guy” at the University of Waterloo, asked to speak to local media, whenever a lottery jackpot got stupendously large (and the news cycle got exceedingly slow). My purpose was to relate to their audience the size of the chance of winning in a way that was quick yet comprehensible, which I did with some success on local radio and television stations.

Inevitably, though, the next day I would hear back of listener disappointment – that some of the fun of purchasing a ticket had been removed. Joy came from anticipating winning the prize and my exposition killed that for many, by them having gained an appreciation of the chance of actually winning.

I felt a little bit bad about this. I wanted people to understand the probabilities but I didn’t want to be a kill joy.

To me, the pleasure just from anticipating the grand prize could very well be worth the ticket price, provided the price was right. Any person could, and should, make that call for themselves – my goal was simply that the person making the choice be well informed.

Over the past two years, we have been faced with something similar. This time the low probability is associated with something we don’t want – death from Covid-19 – hope replaced by fear, based on anxiety felt from imagining our, or a loved one’s, possibility of death.

As with the lottery, people are willing to pay a price commensurate with the outcome. As hope, or fear, increases, people more willingly pay a higher price to gain, or avoid, the outcome.
Individuals vary, as will the prices they are willing to pay; in my view, in both cases, the choice should be left to the individual. Whatever the choice, it should be an informed one, one with a clear appreciation of the chances involved.

Just as the large lottery prize makes the chance of winning more likely in our imagination than it really is, the enormity of our possible death also makes its chance of occurrence loom very large in our mind.

One in a million is hard to comprehend

One problem is that we humans are not well equipped to comprehend very small numbers (or very big ones).

After all, what in our evolutionary history would have selected for this ability? One could imagine there to have been reproductive advantages to understanding a half of something, or a third, or a quarter, or even an eighth, but not likely much selection pressure, if any, to truly comprehend, say, one in a million.

It is difficult even to imagine the magnitude of, the totality that makes, one million of anything. It cannot even be reckoned directly, taking, as it would, at one per second, more than 11 days of non-stop counting.

The photographic art of Chris Jordan might give some idea. The image below is a screenshot from the interactive (zoomable) work called Plastic Cups, 2008 from Chris Jordan’s “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait” website.