The fact that you are alive today is a miracle in and of itself. What were the chances of you being born into this world? Very close to zero. But miracles don’t stop at birth. They happen throughout life. And they happen all the time. It took a lost suitcase and some statistics for me to understand how that is possible.
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Last month I visited the Island of Curaçao for a holiday break. I enjoy some sunshine in the cold winter months and this destination was one of the few still considered safe in terms of COVID-19. After an eight hour flight, I finally arrived at Curaçao International Airport. The passport control wasn’t the most efficient one I have seen in my travels, but it got really bad at baggage reclaim. Standing at the carousel with the rest of the passengers, the hall got more and more quiet as people got their bags and left the airport. I increasingly felt more anxious as time went by. After half an hour I was the only one waiting in the entire hall and no new bags were passing by on the carousel. Was my bag left behind in Amsterdam?
The miracle of the lost suitcase
In the corner of the now otherwise empty hall was an airport employee behind a desk. When I explained the situation, she asked me to fill out a form and call back the next day. I sensed that she didn’t like the fact that I was interrupting her Facetime call with what appeared to be her mother. Filling out the form was obviously a road to nowhere. So I asked her to call Schiphol Airport and check if my bag got on the plane or was still in Amsterdam. She reluctantly agreed. While she made some calls, I once again strolled through the empty hall. I noticed that one of the two bags on the carousel was a dark-blue, medium size Samsonite suitcase. Although the colourful stickers on the suitcase made it clear that it wasn’t mine, I too was traveling with a dark-blue, medium size Samsonite suitcase. The suitcase on the carousel also had a different name tag that confirmed that it wasn’t mine. But why was nobody picking up this suitcase?
I took the dark-blue, medium size Samsonite suitcase of the carousel and decided to call the telephone number that was on the name tag. Thankfully, a woman picked up the phone. When I told her I was at the airport with her suitcase, she was very surprised. She told me she had just arrived at her hotel and already had her suitcase. But upon checking the suitcase in her possession, she realized she had taken the wrong suitcase from the carousel. What are the odds of two people on the same plane with the same suitcase in a mix-up? Apparently not as rare as I would have thought; but the story continues…
The miracle of the lost suitcase: part 2
The woman and I made arrangement for the suitcase swap a half an hour later. After an apology the woman switched suitcases with me at my hotel. I could finally go to sleep after a long journey. After checking in, I arrived in my room and tried to open my suitcase. But it didn’t budge. Had I changed the code and forgotten? Had the woman who took my suitcase messed around with it? I had no recollection of ever changing the code of my suitcase and the woman didn’t notice the wrong suitcase until I called her. I was dumbfounded and couldn’t figure out why the suitcase wouldn’t open. That was until I saw the name tag.
Mister Schutte. The name tag said Mister Schutte! The woman who took the suitcase was definitely not Mister Schutte. And I was pretty sure I wasn’t either. So who on earth was Mister Schutte? Luckily the name tag also had a telephone number on it. I made the call and it was indeed answered by Mister Schutte. The exchange was almost exactly similar to the one I had earlier that evening with the woman who took my suitcase. “I have your suitcase”. “I already have my suitcase”. “Please check the name tag”. “Oh boy, I see I took the wrong suitcase.” I just couldn’t believe it when he told me the name tag on his suitcase said ‘Sander Palm – Scheveningen – The Netherlands’. What had just happened?
A miracle, that is what happened. Three people board the same plane. All three have a dark-blue, medium size Samsonite suitcase. Not the most uncommon suitcase, but still pretty remarkable. After arriving at the airport in Curaçao person number 1 (the woman) took the suitcase of person number 2 (Mister Schutte) without missing all the stickers. Then person number 2 (Mister Schutte) took with him the suitcase of person number 3 (Sander Palm – Scheveningen – The Netherlands) without noticing the different name tag. That left person number 3 (Sander Palm – Scheveningen – The Netherlands) at the airport with the stickered suitcase of person number 1 (the woman) and a grumpy airport employee. After my second suitcase swap that evening with Mister Schutte, I thought about the chances of things like this. Actually, rare events like this suitcase mix-up seem to happen all the time. Why is that?
The birthday problem
How many people must a group contain in order for there to be a better than 50% chance that two members of the group will share the same birthday? When I ask this question, most people grossly underestimate the chances and overestimate the group size. The answers given are in close proximity of a group size of 183 people. Roughly half the number of days in a year. The reason for this error is that people search for the answer to a different question. The question on their mind is how large the group must be to share their birthday. Which is not correct, since any birthday of a group member matching the birthday of another group member will do. Therefore, the correct answer is just 23 people (On the assumption that each day of the year is equally probable for a birthday). The difficulty of correctly answering the question is called the birthday problem. And it means that for most classes in elementary school, it is more likely than not that two children share a birthday.
The probability neglect
The tendency to disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty is called the probability neglect. The bias was named by Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein who co wrote the bestseller Nudge. Probability neglect tells us that people mainly consider the magnitude of an event, not its likelihood.
The probability effect can be applied to many different areas. To lotteries for example. When a lottery winner hits another major prize in the same lottery, it is more statistics than a miracle. The chances of a particular lottery winner hitting another major prize is indeed very slim. But one of the winners hitting it big once more, is almost inevitable.
Miracles small and big
Have you ever thought about someone and at that exact moment you receive a phone call from that person? It feels like a miracle, but once again it is pure statistics. You think about people all the time. People call you all the time. In the end, the thinking and the calls will match up someday. You just forget all the times when they don’t.
So miracles, small and big, happen all the time. They won’t all happen to you and they won’t all happen at the same time. But even that is inescapable for some lucky devil. But even if you don’t win the lottery (again) on new years eve, you still have the miracle of life. After all, that is a true miracle in and of itself.
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About the author
Sander Palm (1980) is a behavioral economist and fitness enthusiast. He has a Master of Science in Marketing from VU University Amsterdam. He lives and works (out) in The Hague. Want to know how you can get your marketing, communication and sales in better shape? Drop an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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