I was in line at a convenience store the other day waiting f-o-r-e-v-e-r behind this woman that was having some sort of problem. Apparently, the little kiosk they have for state lottery ticket generation wasn’t working correctly. After several minutes, the guy behind the counter told her that he guessed it was broken, but if she was interested, someone had earlier had some lottery tickets printed out that he realized only afterward that he didn’t have the money to buy. That was initially fine with the woman, but after looking at the tickets she said “I don’t want these.”

“Can I ask why not?” The clerk asked.

“I don’t like the numbers.”

At this point, a guy behind her chimed in. I couldn’t tell if he was presumptuous or if they were in there together, but he said, “You don’t like the numbers? What does it matter?”

“Well,” she explained, “on this ticket they’re in order. 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36. Who picks those numbers? What are the odds that the numbers will be sequential?”

“Good point,” the guy said.

Of course, she’s completely right. What are the odds that they would be sequential? The answer is that the odds are the same as any other six numbers that she might pick, unless they do something special with the number generation for the lottery that I don’t know about. If I had a kid with me, I would use that to illustrate that if the notion of six consecutive numbers seems six steps beyond unlikely, that’s why you shouldn’t play the lottery because there is no way to pick any series of numbers that is any more likely to occur. Then, of course, I would probably launch into a tirade about the evils of a state-run lottery system. At which point they would roll their eyes and probably ignore the more useful information that came before my jump on my high horse.

Category: Market

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7 Responses to Sequential Madness

  1. Peter says:

    Trying to explain basic probabilty and statistics to the typical lottery customer would as successful as teaching ballroom dancing to a goldfish.

  2. Linus says:

    Agreed! (to both the post AND Peter’s comment)

  3. rob says:

    Actually, she was doubly wrong. All sequences are equally (un)likely, but lottery players do not pick their numbers randomly. So if the rarely chosen combo you picked won, there is much lower chance of splitting the winnings.

    I’m pretty sure the opposite happened after a plane crash in NY. The plane’s flight number, or the date or some such, won some lottery. Like 1000 people split the pot.

  4. trumwill says:

    That thought had occurred to me, Rob. It’s one of the reasons to hover in numbers that don’t fall on birthdays (ie 32 and up) so that if you win you get it all to yourself. I thought about mentioning it in the post, but I’m not ironclad sure that sequential numbers might not actually be submitted more commonly than randomly generated ones. It’s sort of an obvious way not to be obvious so maybe there are more people doing it than we realize.

  5. Peter says:

    Connecticut has (or used to have) a Daily Numbers mini-lottery in which four numbers 0-9 were selected every day. About 25 years ago, there was quite a controversy when for something like 20 days in a row the numbers included at least one zero, including a 0000. Many people thought that the lottery authorities were fixing the drawing for some reason. For their part, the authorities tried to explain that each day’s drawing was independent of all others and the profusion of 0’s was just happenstance. It wasn’t an easy point to get across.

  6. rob says:

    I haven’t really thought much about it, because trying to beat a lottery is a fool’s errand. Counting sequences probably are more common if people buy blocks of tickets.

    To counteract birthdays, one should avoid 0(?)1-12 as the first digit(s) 0(?)1-30 as the the third digits, and then 19(50 or so-99) and 20(01-9) after that. But really, don’t don’t try to beat the lottery.

    Not only is my pedantry boring, it’s also trivial.

  7. trumwill says:

    I’m sure that there are people that have written their thesis on the subject!

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