Skip to content

Can Derren Brown Help You Win the Lottery?

March 15, 2012

Derren Brown, the illusionist, is no stranger to the use of the idea of the wisdom of crowds as part of his entertainment package. A few years ago, for example, he selected a group of people and asked them to estimate how many sweets were in a jar.

All conventional ‘wisdom of crowds’ stuff, albeit wrapped as part of a magical mystery tour. His relatively more recent venture into this world of apparent wisdom went down a rather singular avenue, however, as he explained how a group of 24 people could predict the winning Lottery numbers with uncanny accuracy.

The idea in essence was that each of the 24 would make a guess about the number on each ball and the average of each of these guesses would converge on the next set of winning numbers. It appeared to work – but that is the thing about illusionists; they are good at producing illusions.

I will not go into how he did generate the effect of predicting the lottery draw, because there is no point if you already know, and because it would spoil the fun if you don’t. What is sure, however, is that the musings of the crowd had nothing to do with it.

But why not? After all, if the crowd can accurately guess the weight of an ox or the number of jelly beans in a jar, why not the numbers on the lottery balls? The simple answer, of course, is because the lottery balls are drawn randomly. And the thing about random events is that they are unpredictable. This is at the heart of what economists term ‘weak form market efficiency’, i.e. that future movements in market prices cannot be predicted from past movements. In this sense, the series has no memory.

So what is likely to happen if you do get a group of friends around and ask each to choose six numbers for the next Lottery draw? If you take the average of these numbers, my best estimate is that you are likely to end up with a prediction for each ball that is about 30 or probably less. Why so? Partly this is because averaging a large number of selections is likely to produce a number somewhere nearer the mid-point of the set of numbers than the extremes, but also because birthdays are particularly popular numbers.

But if you do use popular numbers (birthdays and numbers which form a simple pattern on the ticket) and just happen to win, you’re likely to be sharing your winnings with a lot of other people who’ve chosen the same numbers as you. The better strategy is to populate your ticket with bigger numbers, and to avoid neat patterns.

This strategy won’t alter your chance of winning but it will increase how much you can expect to win if you do win. And that is no illusion!

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: