Psychic elephants, math, and getting fooled

Nearly every Euro or World cup football tournament has a news feature about a psychic animal that predicts a country’s results. It was no different a few days ago when news showed up about a psychic elephant that was predicting a German victory against England.

These pieces of news are always interesting as they’re accompanied by a video of this soothsaying animal. They likely provide some comfort to those placing big bets.

They’re also a fantastic example of how we can get fooled by anecdotes into believing something that isn’t true. The reason for this ability to be fooled is the inherent difficulty in understanding probabilities/ratios.

In this case, this elephant made the news because she predicted the results 3 games in a row. How hard is that?

As a game can have 3 outcomes (Win, Lose, Draw), the probability of getting the first result right is 1/3 or 33%. Repeating that in the second game brings us to 11%. Doing it in the third game brings us to 3.7% or 1/27.

3.7% of 1/27 may not mean much. Consider this – during such tournaments, there are hundreds – maybe even thousands – of animals who are encouraged by their owners to indulge in these kinds of games. If one of them does well enough, they could become a celebrity. And, with random chance, 1 out of every 27 of these animals would get it right.

To predict the round of 16, 1 out of every 54 (only 2 possible outcomes – win and lose – at this stage) of these would get it right. Quarterfinals would take us to 1 out of every 108, semi finals would be 1 out of every 216, and the finals would be 1 out of every 432.

So, if 500 random animals around the world did this, one of them would be “psychic” as they’d predict every result right. And, the chances of 500 random animals being asked to do this by owners (across horses, elephants, and even octopuses :-)) is high.


Prof Katherine Hayhoe, the Director of the Climate Science Center at the Texas Tech University, shared a fantastic Twitter thread last week in response to a recently leaked report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 5 notes:

(1) The leaked IPCC report was damning (summary). The speed at which our ice caps are melting suggest we’re going to hit irreversible tipping points faster than we anticipated.

(2) Prof Katherine Hayhoe, in her thread, gave us more color. She started by explaining that the report was just a synthesis report of data that is already published. So, no climate scientist was surprised at the report.

(3) She put our current situation into perspective with powerful analogy – “Our entire civilization is built on the assumption that climate varies within bounds that can be predicted based on the past. It’s as if we’ve been driving down the road looking in the rearview mirror: but now we’ve hit a dangerous curve & our wheels are teetering on the edge.” She then explained that climate scientists defaulted to sharing the facts without explaining the devastating full picture. This has been termed “ESLD” or erring on the least side of drama.

(4) She goes onto explain the importance of the bluntness in the IPCC report. In the past 30 years, the playing field hasn’t been level thanks to the fossil fuel industry pouring huge amounts of money to manufacture science denial. But, there’s much needed growing awareness about the gravity of the situation.

It is a great thread. I ended up reading more about Prof Hayhoe’s great work and also pre-ordered her book. I look forward to learning more from her.

Christian Eriksen

Footballer (/soccer player) Christian Eriksen collapsed on the field due to a Cardiac arrest at Euro 2021 a few days back. I’m happy to hear he has since recovered.

I wasn’t watching the match live. So, I learnt about it after it happened and saw some of the footage/reactions. 4 events that stood out:

(1) His teammates formed a huddle around him to shield him and the crowd from witnessing the moment of his then likely death. What an incredible gesture.

(2) Inexplicably, UEFA made the decision to let play continue. Even if they asked the players for their view, I’m not sure the players could/would have been in a fit mental state to continue. It is similar to asking someone suffering from concussion if they want to play. Another example of how often we underestimate the impact of mental health.

(3) Anti-vaxxers decide to use the moment to further their cause. They claimed Eriksen’s cardiac arrest was caused by the vaccine. His club team later shared he hadn’t been vaccinated as yet. Another fascinating mini episode in the long-running series on human behavior.

(4) Moments like this always serve as a reminder of the fragility of our lives. Here was an incredibly fit and talented 29 year old football star who nearly lost his life on the job.

As Gabe Marcotti, a writer on ESPN, nicely put it – “Sports, career, money … it all crumbles to dust when faced with what really matters: life.”

If you want to get in shape

“If you want to get in shape, it’s not difficult. Spend an hour a day running or at the gym. Do that for six months or a year. Done.

That’s not the difficult part.

The difficult part is becoming the kind of person who goes to the gym every day.” | Seth Godin, The Practice

This was beautifully put. Habits stick when they fit with our culture and identity.

Change that culture and identity and we change our life.

The Tony Hawk story

Every few weeks, Morgan Housel shares stories on his blog. I have no idea where he sources them from. But, I’m always impressed by how good they are. Today’s post had a collection of good ones – below is my favorite.

Skateboarder Tony Hawk landed a 900 – two and a half spins – at the 1999 X Games. It was the biggest achievement the sport had ever seen, the equivalent of the four-minute mile.

It catapulted Hawk into legend status. His video game came out a year later and sold 30 million copies. Six Flags named a rollercoaster after him.

But here’s the craziest part of this story: fifteen years later, an eight-year-old landed a 900.

Hawk was also the first person to land a 720 (two spins) – a feat later accomplished by a second-grader.

A lot of sports work like that. One person raises the bar over what previously seemed impossible, and that becomes the baseline for a new generation to build upon.

Just qualifying for the Boston Marathon requires a time that, 100 years ago, would put you within nine minutes of a world record.

A gold-medal gymnast 70 years ago would not make the cut in a local competition today.

Same with technology, business, and investment knowledge. One generation builds on the impossible feats of the previous one. It’s like compound interest.

A fifth-grader recently landed a 1080 – three spins, unthinkable in Hawk’s day. Asked what he thought of the achievement, Hawk replied: “It represents everything I love about skateboarding: constant evolution.”

Which is a statement you can apply to just about any field.

It is also a statement we can apply to ourselves.

How much are we evolving everyday?

Overestimating our contributions

One of my favorite stories from Dan Ariely – a Behavioral Economics author and Professor – is about how roommates and spouses consistently overestimate their contribution to the household.

When his research team asked roommates to estimate their contributions, the totals consistently added up to more than a 100%.

It is one of those studies that I think about from time to time. When I find myself thinking about my contribution to chores as I attend to them after a long day, it reminds me of just how wrong I likely am… and chuckle.

Gap between two cars

You’re on the highway and see two cars ahead of you. The gap between the two cars ahead on the next lane doesn’t seem to be much.

But, as you move closer, you realize there may just be enough for you to switch lanes.

Move a bit closer and, suddenly, you realize there is more than enough. You’re going to make it.

Once you get there, you make it comfortably.

Every time I experience this, I’m reminded of the quote – “When you’re at the beginning, don’t obsess about the middle. The middle will look different when you get there.


How we make big decisions

Every once a while, it is worth asking ourselves – how do I make a big decision?

To answer this, we need to ask 3 questions:

(1) How have we made big decisions in the past?

(2) What was the process when things worked well? And didn’t? (Process includes – how did we go about thinking about it? How did it feel?)

(3) What would our ideal process be?

It is worth taking the time to synthesize our approach because big decisions tend to have outsized consequences on our life. Deciding to change careers, go to graduate school, relocate, buy a home, etc., are all moves that have the potential to change every aspect of our life.

And, the crazy part is that there is no single correct decision in most of these cases. It all depends on the context.

Most importantly, the best decisions for you are those that work for you. So, it helps to understand how you can make a decision that is likely going to work for you.

For example, I know folks who only make such decisions when they feel the logic behind the decision is unassailable. I also know folks who only make such a decision when it “feels” right. For what it’s worth, I’m in the latter category.

Again, there’s no right answer. It all depends. However, once we understand our preferred process, it makes it easier to replicate when we make the next big decision.