This blog started out looking at how fragile probabilistic randomness often affects our collective and individual fates as a society. The next few posts work toward exploring some of the mathematics behind how half of America found itself embracing a collective political delusion which is objectively 180 degrees from its own long-held conservative religious and political norms.
That math may get a little technical as we go along, but in order to get there, this post will first present a very simple overview that, when comprehended, might serve as a “slap on the forehead” of realization.
What stays in Vegas? The cash
The story starts in Las Vegas, Nevada. I have been on many business trips to this city, but I remember well my first visit. My hotel room was very nice, but also a real bargain. I ate at sumptuous buffets for very little cost. Expensive glitz was everywhere around me on the famous and booming “Las Vegas Strip.” And I asked myself, “Who is paying for all of this?”
I don’t think I have ever met a single person who has said, “I lost a lot of money during my trip to Vegas.” Every one of my acquaintances have claimed that they at least “came out even” during their visit, and some always swear they come back financially ahead of “the house” from their gaming adventures.
But the accumulated wealth that “stays in Vegas” belies that observation. Somebody has left lots of money behind, and that money has been invested in even bigger and better hotels and casinos over the years. I call this phenomenon collective delusion. We can’t admit to ourselves that, mathematically, “the house” always wins in the end. A few leave the place as “lucky winners,” but the reality is that billions of dollars are mysteriously “left behind” in Vegas every year from people who disavow their contributions.
It’s just simple math. Some casinos go belly-up, as did notorious places in Atlantic City, but you have to be pretty bad at running them. Our collective delusion just keeps bringing in the cash in huge amounts annually. Even in casinos located in remote locations, the cashflow can be quite impressive.
Here is the point: If it was not objectively and mathematically true that lots of people leave behind lots of money, Las Vegas would be but an obscure desert outpost today. The “collective delusion” is that few “money leavers” will admit it.
My second example of collective delusion is about advertising in general, and internet advertising in particular. There has long been a widely-held assertion that “Advertising does not work on me!” And yet advertising dollars first spawned multiple “free,” yet very profitable, over-the-air television networks starting in the 1950s, and radio networks decades before that. If the advertising did not work, the business would not be there.
The turn of the century then saw the emergence of incredible levels of wealth not seen before generated from “free” internet services, such as Google and Facebook. And yet the popular attitude remains that “I don’t pay attention to the online ads.” The “slap on the forehead” here is the same realization of collective delusion. Somebody is diverting billions of dollars of wealth annually into the pockets of “free” internet application providers. And the math says that the dollars come out of your pocket. You just likely haven’t figured that out yet. The force of collective denial remains strong.
And on a final somber note
I wrote a post recently about a version of this collective delusion that plagues the debate over abortion in the United States. The numbers of legal and illegal abortions performed annually do not support that math that only “those people” are the ones getting abortions.
“Normal” women and girls, “religious” women and girls, make up the majority of abortions performed in the United States annually. But because we are unable to publicly admit this, we live under a collective delusion that this is just an issue about “those people” (minority women and those of “questionable morality”), and that making legal abortion unobtainable to “those people” will magically make the problem go away.
Spoiler: it won’t. “Good” women and teens get a lot of abortions, and have better access to birth control, and will continue to do so even with a lot of restrictions placed on the procedure, because they often have financial resources and other support that poorer women and teens do not. And yet they often are not in a cultural position to stand up and publicly voice their support of Planned Parenthood.
Our collective delusions have huge societal, as well as financial consequences. A little math literacy, and a few more “slaps on the forehead,” would go a long way here toward understanding our world.
In an upcoming post, I will demonstrate that we have this same collective delusion about political advertising and online influence, and you will see some interesting mathematics in action about how human minds are actually changed while they, at the same time, remain largely clueless about their own movement.
The next post in this series, on “the math of changing your mind,” has been posted.
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