Sunday, March 29, 2009

Amazing Race and Probability

Amazing Race is one of just a couple of TV shows that we watch (Yes, we are not watching TV otherwise). On tonight's episode, there was a task where the contestants had to guess which of about 60 boxes on the wall of a Thai store held a clue card.

Since there were six clue cards and 60 boxes, the probability of guessing the right box was 1 in 10. Now, if a team noted which box they had previously chosen, and they never repeated a choice, the odds improve with each guess. So the key is to never select a box previously chosen. Yet, team after team, chose boxes at random.

Remember, it's probabilistic. Choosing boxes in an orderly fashion provides the same probability of winning as choosing at random. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, most folks feel that by choosing at random they can beat probability. Instead of beating probability, they were putting themselves at risk of repeating a guess -- a very poor strategy.

A simple understanding of math would defeat the human tendency to believe that probability can be outplayed -- a fool's errand.

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