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Emotional Numbers

story imageDid you ever wish for something and have it come true, or sit on the edge of your seat with a good luck charm during a major sports event, willing the game to swing to your team’s favour, and have it actually pay off? Have you ever won the lottery (no matter how small the pay off) based on your own “lucky” set of numbers?

The feeling is inescapable. You are convinced that your effort did this. But, now that you’re a little calmer, the dust has settled, and the neighbors have stopped complaining about the noise, let’s ask a few questions. Is there more to this process than is immediately apparent? Would the numbers have been called even if you had done nothing but purchase a ticket and placed random numbers in their place? After all, how many other people were counting on their numbers being called? How complex and time-consuming had their number choosing rituals been?

Welcome to the slippery world of logical fallacies. In this case you’ve fallen for the old post hoc argument.

This fallacy follows the basic format of: A preceded B, therefore A caused B, and therefore assumes cause and effect for two events just because they are temporally related (the Latin translates to ‘after this, therefore because of this’). (

Well, what’s actually going on then? Mathematically the odds seem to be incomprehensibly stacked against you — 1:10,000,000 or more! But if you look at the big picture, it seems that someone at random wins every other week. So the odds for just any random person winning are about 1:3, which are much better odds. When push comes to shove, the numbers don’t really care what they’re doing. It does seem magical when it happens to you, but really you have just witnessed a truly random event, one of many such events that happen to you all the time; the only difference is your emotional investment in this particular one.

Let’s look at some other random events that you may take for granted that could be just as magical if you make it all about you.

Magic rain

You’re standing outside and a single drop of rain lands on the very end of your nose. “It’s about to rain,” you think, and seek shelter. But consider, if you will, the sheer amount of space that single raindrop had to travel through, and how many wind currents guided it to its final destination at the end of your nose. It’s almost like someone guided it to land perfectly and exactly in that spot. NASA would have a hard time doing the math on that one. Seems almost impossible that one raindrop would pick that exact place to land in order to warn you of the weather, but it did. In terms of odds, it’s much more likely that you’d win the lottery.

Now the rain starts and you don’t find shelter in time. You are getting pelted by rain and wind. The odds are the same for each individual raindrop hitting you as for the first one, but now you’re only able to see the raindrops as a downpour; you don’t consider them to be individual drops anymore. You have 1:1 odds of getting hit by just any rain drop. Has it lost its magic yet?


You pray for a sick loved one and they get better, so you feel somewhat responsible. But how many prayers do you make on behalf of people that don’t come to fruition? Do you make excuses or move the goalpost to allow the prayer to be answered, even if it’s not what you asked for? Prayers are tricky for this reason. What you expect is a collaboration between you and a spiritual entity of your choosing; therefore, you can dismiss a negative outcome as the entity simply saying “no” rather than putting the blame completely on yourself. But it’s impossible to prove that there was any spiritual involvement either way. Your emotional investment in the outcome makes it seem to you that there was a connection made, but it’s more plausible to accept that people get better or worse on their own, without your spiritual sway if you don’t have actual evidence beyond emotion to back up your claim.


You have a dream that comes true, or a daydream that seems too real and the events are unfolding just as you had pictured them. But how many dreams do you have that you can’t remember or that don’t come true? How many thoughts or daydreams do you have in a day or week? Do all of them come true, or was it just this one? When you try to count every thought or daydream, these numbers can be staggering. If you look at the figures, you are wrong infinitely more often than you are right. But let’s say you were correct in your predictions — how many of the details are accurate? Often dreams deal with familiar scenes or behaviors but the details are surreal: “In my dream I was driving toward my childhood home with my deceased father, and he kept weeping jewels from his eyes. Then we got into an accident. Two weeks later, I had a real car accident. I can’t help but think my father was trying to warn me.”

Which part of the dream came true exactly? The driving part? I drive every day, so there’s nothing significant there. The accident part? Everyone has anxiety about getting in an accident, car accidents are the number one cause of death among adults under thirty, and they are in the news almost every day — that could have affected the dream. Heading toward my childhood home? Technically, every time I travel in an easterly direction I’m heading toward my childhood home. Did the jewels symbolize financial loss from the accident? Well, the jewels could mean anything at all. If the accident happened six months or a year later instead of two weeks later, would it still be considered prophetic? You can see here how pretty much anything in the dream can be interpreted as an accurate prediction, regardless of how mundane the circumstance.

There are a number of things at play when making dream predictions:

  1. We are creatures of habit; most of our days follow a routine; only the finer details of each day change for us.
  2. Because dreams are loosely based on your waking life, you are bound to find parallels between the two states.
  3. Your mind is constantly running hypothetical simulations drawing from everything you’ve experienced in life; that’s how we’re able to make cogent predictions based on careful observation. However, it works against us sometimes. It’s only a matter of time before the random sequencing of your unconscious mind generates an outcome based on the details of your routine-based waking life and superimposes a set of anxiety-causing situations that might have some amount of plausibility — and with seemingly apt timing. It won’t happen for everyone, but it does happen more than you would expect.

So with all that, do you really stand out that much among your peers with your ability to channel random events to your favour, or does it just seem that way because you have an emotional investment in the final, random-chance outcome? In all these events (lottery, prayer, psychic predictions, etc.), the magic relies on a simple set of self-deceptions — either confirmation bias or hindsight bias. Both force you to ignore all the times when things didn’t work in your favour and cherry pick the best outcomes to prove the magical truth. These beliefs can be very comforting because they can offer a sense of control in a situation where you had none. But be warned: if you rely on this type of magical thinking to get through life, you’re not really living in reality. Putting too much faith in this kind of magical thinking can actually do more harm than good because you might believe that merely concentrating on a problem can make it go away, when in fact you should be acting to affect the situation in a real way.

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