The probability of your existence: Basically zero

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays (Friday Edition) was written by Juli Breines and originally published on Psych Your Mind on Novermber 18, 2011.

At some point after first learning about the birds and the bees as a child (possibly after watching the opening credits of Look Who’s Talking or thinking too hard about the implications of Back to the Future), it occurred to me that I could have easily been someone else. Had my parents not happened to meet when they did, and happened to conceive at the moment they did, with a specific pair of egg and sperm, I wouldn’t be here. Apart from being a minor existential crisis, this realization made me feel incredibly lucky. Out of an infinite number of possible people, I was one of those who got a chance at life.

I recently came across a lovely (if statistically questionable) visual demonstration of one person’s attempt to approximate the odds that each of us came into the world and exist as we are today. It incorporates probabilities ranging from our parents’ first encounter to our unbroken line of ancestors to the emergence of the first single celled organism, concluding with the following analogy: The probably that we as unique individuals came to be is equivalent to “the probability of 2 million people getting together each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided die. They each roll the dice, and they all come up with the exact same number – for example, 550, 343, 279, 001. The odds that you exist at all are basically zero.”

From a psychological perspective, this realization may induce a sense of awe. In a seminal paper, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt define awe as an emotion that is characterized by vastness (perceiving something that is much larger than the self, physically or psychologically) and by a need for accommodation (a struggle to comprehend something that does not easily fit into existing ways of seeing the world). The double rainbow guy of youtube fame, for example, is clearly in a state of awe (and probably also on drugs).

Awe can be elicited by interpersonal experiences, such as being in the presence of a powerful leader, or having an encounter with God or the supernatural, by physical experiences, such as witnessing a beautiful sunset or a natural disaster, or by cognitive experiences, such as trying to comprehend a grand theory (or an idea as seemingly simple as one’s own existence). Research on awe suggests that it involves both a feeling of personal smallness and a sense of connectedness with something larger than the self. Awe-prone individuals (those who tend to have their minds blown more often than most) were found to define themselves as belonging to more universal categories (e.g., “an inhabitant of the earth”).

In addition to feeling awe-struck by the near impossibility of your existence, you may also feel another emotion that has attracted the attention of psychologists in recent years – gratitude. Reflecting on near misses can increase happiness and appreciation, as Amie discusses in a previous post. So with Thanksgiving approaching, why not include on your list of things to be grateful for the fact that, against all odds, you and your loved ones made it into the world in the first place.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion Cognition & Emotion, 17 (2), 297-314 DOI:10.1080/02699930302297

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