Sunday, 15 August 2010

Luck and chance

One of the reasons I like working at a University is that I get the chance to attend all sorts of interesting events. Tonight I went to a great talk by Dr Brooke Magnanti on Chance and Luck, delivered appropriately enough on Friday 13th. And yes, you would be right in thinking her name is familiar in a different context, but not relevant to this lecture! Brooke currently works as a neuroscientist at Bristol University but was previously at the University of Sheffield where she did her PhD in the Department of Forensic Pathology. The event was organised by Science Brainwaves, a student led organization whose aim is to bring science to the public. It's an excellent organization and deserves lots of support.

The talk focused on why we believe what we do about luck and chance - why for example so many of us do the lottery and believe that we're going to be that lucky person who wins when the chances of winning are 14 million to 1. Despite these long odds, 65% of British adults consider the lottery to be a likely source of retirement income.

We tend to use chance and luck interchangeably despite their different meanings. This is demonstrated quite well by the games we play. As a child, we play games like snakes and ladders which are totally based on chance. As we get older and understand more about chance, especially how it can be calculated, we become less interested in it, and want to believe in some element of luck. We mistake chance for skill, and guesses for instinct. That's why the lottery, or Deal or No Deal, are so popular, but they are no different to our childhood games of snakes and ladders.

Brooke also talked about our desire to seek out patterns in random sequences, and how we use heuristics to make decisions based on partial evidence, experience and rumour. I was particularly interested in the Availability Heuristic, where we assess the probability of an event by the ease with which we can think of examples.

A very good talk, and well done to Science Brainwaves for organising it.

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