How can lucky streaks be explained?

My wife and I deconverted from christianity about two years ago. Ever since then I have been an atheist. When we were christians, we would attribute good events in our life to god having favor on us. I know that’s not true now but some recent events have me perplexed. In the last two weeks, the following great things have happened: I landed a job without an in-person interview, I was able to get out of my rental agreement in order to move to my hometown and the house beside my parents became available to rent during the week I moved. When I was a christian, I would’ve attributed this to god. I know that’s not the reason. However, how can these things be explained? I’m having a difficult time thinking of this windfall as a bunch of good coincidences.

Posted: January 4th 2010

Dave Hitt www

Few things are as counter-intuitive as probability. Not only is the logic tricky (look up the Monty Hall Three Door Problem for a perfect example) but emotions and faulty human memory get in the way when things are trending in a great or a terrible direction.

If you play poker you’ll experience streaks of “good luck.” Once, when playing hold’em, my hole cards were queens, then kings, then aces, then kings again. A few times I was dealt aces twice in a row. The odds against that are huge, but if you play enough hands it will happen (very) occasionally, and it’s memorable. I’ve also gone 30 or 40 hands in a row getting nothing but garbage cards, which is more common because garbage cards are more common. Those sessions aren’t memorable and tend to all blend together in memory. Although everyone gets the same number of good hands and bad hands over time our selective memory can delude us into thinking we’re extremely lucky or unlucky.

I’m guessing that getting a job without an interview involved people who knew you and respected your skills and track record, which means it wasn’t a magical, improbable thing, but an example of making your own luck.

You had three very good things happen in a short period of time. Congratulations! Life is going well for you at the moment. Enjoy the coincidences while they last.

Posted: January 5th 2010

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If you had good events happened to you when you were practicing Christianity, and you now know that it had nothing to do with your religion, then why do you think your patch of present good luck is odd? You have already experienced good luck, so you knows that it happens. It happened again.

What I do is that I emphasize the randomness when bad luck hits me. For example, I have tried everything to make sure some event goes smoothly, and it does not, because someone does not show up or it rains or I get sick, etc. If those kinds of events can happen, then why can’t the reverse?

I prepare myself mentally realizing in the future when the opposite happens, it is nothing special. I mean I appreciate that they are pleasant occurrences, and I make it a point to enjoy them. But, I don’t get emotionally attached to them. With the bad events, I also am not emotionally riled-up. I just try to solve the problems the string of bad luck may present.

Keep in mind if the same set of 'good’ events happened to someone else, they may be perceived as bad (same for 'bad’ events).

Posted: January 4th 2010

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bitbutter www

Although you’re having a hard time believing it, I do think what you’re describing is simply a bunch of happy accidents.

It’s useful, in situations that seem unlikely enough to be beyond coincidence, to keep in mind the idea of PETWHAC. This is an acronym From Richard Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow. It stands for population of events that would have appeared coincidental. The petwhac corresponds to the set of alternative events that would have given you the same feeling that their occurrence was in need of explanation beyond chance alone.

The larger the petwhac that accompanies any given coincidence, the less impressive we should consider that coincidence to be.

In your case, because you’re dealing with a cluster of pieces of good luck, none of which are especially amazing on their own, the petwhac involved is absolutely massive.

Think about how many billions of possible events would have appeared to fit into your streak of good luck. What would really be spooky is if you went through life without any such 'lucky streaks’.

Posted: January 4th 2010

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brian thomson www

How can coincidences be explained? There’s a branch of mathematics known as Probability theory that deals with combinations of events. You start with the probability of each individual event. In a classic example, Enrico Fermi used to ask his students “how many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Using the correct combinations of statistics and probabilities (such as the popularity of pianos), the students could come up with a surprisingly accurate estimate of the number of piano tuners in Chicago.

In another example, if you put a bunch of people in a room, what are the odds that two people will have the same birthday? At what point will the likelihood of a shared birthday pass 50%? The counter-intuitive answer is 23 people: in a group of 23, it’s more than 50% likely that two will share a birthday. Surveys have verified this result, again and again.

So, if you want to ask “how can this happen”: it’s possible to calculate exactly how it can happen, given sufficiently detailed information about each event. Or, you may prefer Terry Pratchett’s version: “million-to-one chances occur nine times out of ten”!

Posted: January 4th 2010

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