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Counterintuitive evolution of luck

#Probability #Interconnectedness #Random #IndependentEvents #CoinToss #Luck

Humanity is blessed/cursed with many traits that are unique to us, but the strangest of them all is evolution of concept of luck in human brain.

Concept of luck, common across humanity, can’t be taken lightly because we, Homo sapiens, are defined by our ability to understand the cause-and-effect nature of reality and make wiser choices than other animals (at least, in theory) that helps us survive better.

Our intellect is all about grasping patterns of cause-and-effect relationships and predicting the outcome before things actually happen; and yet, when we look closely at the concept of luck, it appears to be completely opposite to what human intelligence stands for.

If anyone of us, even a mathematician trained in probability mathematics is made to play a game of chance like poker or even something as simple as coin toss, if there is a continuous streak of one result, we all have a gut reaction for increase in the chances of an opposite result over time.

If a coin toss experiment yields ten heads straight, we would strongly feel that the chances of getting a tail are increasing. We all feel that if we keep playing any card game of chance after losing continuously, our chances of winning next game will increase.

Unfortunately, the reality is completely opposite to our gut reaction. Phenomenon like coin toss or card game are called independent events, i.e. one coin toss has no impact whatsoever on the result of next coin toss. So, every time we toss a coin, the universe re-adjustments the probability equation back to half/half for head/tail, and our belief of improving our chances is completely false.

As our brain is one of the most complex and finest products of evolution, it is not possible that such a gut reaction – to see interconnected-ness in events that are actually completely random – is an innate part of each of us without any justification/benefit. So, there has to be reason for the sense of luck we are born with.

As evolution is all about survival benefit, this strange illusion of interconnected-ness we see may have a wonderful evolutionary explanation.

When you develop cause-and-effect prediction ability, a danger appears. If we see chances of failure increased, we may not continue with our endeavour. For example, we confront a tiger, we can intellectually work out inevitable death and see futility of action.

As life has only one agenda of forcing us put best effort in survival, it has to build a protection against this by-product of cause-and-effect intelligence that has potential to prevent us from taking chances against odds.

As life has been crunching data for billions of years, it has also understood the innate randomness of the reality that co-exists with reasonable amount of predictability.

So, right alongside the evolution of intelligence that has predictive power, it has also inbuilt a counterintuitive streak that can allow us to exploit benefit of a random chance by being blind to odds that independent phenomenon like coin toss display.

Unfortunately, there is yet another recent development that we need to cognise, and that is amplification of this trait that seem to be overwhelming us.

If we allow the trait to sense interconnected-ness in random things go overboard, we end up with emergence of social phenomenon like horoscopes or vastu-shastra or obsessions like wearing-white-shirt-on-exam-day.

It is entirely possible that humanity can go down this slippery slope and pseudo-interconnected-ness can start replacing use of rationality in decision making that are crucial. It may sound strange but wars are lost because army commanders having waited for the right omen.

So, while sense of luck does have positive power, let us use it with a pinch of salt of reason by understanding what it has evolved for.

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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