Money and love and landing that job: The role probability plays throughout our lives.

A note from the AFC Science Advisor: Since opening, Advice Fortune Cookie has received several questions that the Cookie’s have had difficulty in answering. While they do possess many great talents (being sentient baked goods for one) predicting the future is not among them. But we do not like to leave our diners’ questions unanswered. So this week I’ll be stepping in to give a quick explanation on how probability affects our lives and fortunes and what we can do to improve the odds of success.

I live in atlanta will I ever win the lottery? I need a soulmate and to win mega mega millions from lottery?

Where’s my f***ing Husband?

Will I get this job?


Wouldn’t it be great to win mega millions from lottery? I know if I suddenly came into a large pile of cash I wouldn’t be stuck on minimum wage pouring over journal articles in the back of a Chinese bakery. Oh well, I did choose to become a scientist, and we all know how lucrative that is.

Despite my current monetary situation, I have never been tempted to buy a lottery ticket. Why? Because I understand probability. On any given lottery draw there are over one hundred and seventy-five million combinations of numbers that could make you a mega millionaire. So that lucky lottery ticket you have in your hand has to be the one out of those 175,000,000 combinations of numbers that is pulled out on draw night [1]. Those are pretty steep odds. To put it in perspective you have a 1 in 10,000,000 chance of becoming president [2] and a 1 in 12,000 chance of being struck by lightning in your lifetime [3].

So if the lottery is not the way to make money what you can do instead? The best you can do is not play the lottery. Take the money you would have swapped for a certainly useless piece of paper and instead bank it in an account that earns compound interest. The beauty of compound interest is that it earns money just by sitting there. And if you put the money you would have spent on lottery tickets in each week, that money starts to earn more money. This way you go from a 1 in 175,000,000 chance to making more money to a guaranteed way of making more money.


Another of life’s great aspirations. Soulmate or husband, most people on this insignificant blue-green planet are looking for love.

There are a lot of things that influence finding a life partner. The first things that usually spring to people’s mind are: how often they interact with people, how attractive they are, how much money they have. But very few people think about probability. It’s not surprising–probability isn’t particularly sexy to most people (although the normal distribution is quite voluptuous)–but it does play a significant role in meeting your match. Dating is very literally a numbers* game.

Think about it like this. Say in your city, right now, there are 3,000 people that have compatible personalities to you that would make a good partner. Perhaps one quarter of these are within dating age, neither too old or too young, that leaves 750 people. How many of them are actually single? Let’s be optimistic and say half, now we are down to 375. Are they all the same sexual orientation as you? Probably not, let’s knock off another quarter - 281. And then we have to start whittling them down by the things that are on your specific “List”, but I’ll get to that in a minute. So here we have a hypothetical 281 people that you could potentially be happy with.

If you live in a city of approximately 400,000 people picture this as a ball pit filled with 400,000 blue balls and 281 yellow ones. How likely do you think it is that you could pull out a yellow ball at random? Not very likely you probably thought. And most people know this without actually knowing this. Which is why they attend speed dating events, join online match-making sites, or visit bars looking for other singles. This helps to some extent. Most of the yellow balls are clumped together in these areas, you have a greater chance of picking one if you dip your hand in there. You’ve probably already guessed that if you continually dip your hand in, you up your chances again of finding a yellow ball. See what I’m getting at? Single people are a finite resource. As such you have a finite probability of meeting one that is right for you. Increase your odds of success by going to where all the yellow balls are and going there often. Putting yourself out there is the first sure fire way to win at this numbers game.

My second point is a bit more personal and refers to the “List” I mentioned earlier. Everyone has a “List”, the must haves or the deal breakers. This is another useful exercise: write down your “List”. Start with the absolute must haves, and must not’s, then add the preferably will or will not’s. I’ll do one too just for kicks**:

Must have

  • A high IQ
  • Blue eyes
  • A good job - no artists!

Must not

  • have pets
  • have children
  • like fast food


  • average weight
  • taller than me
  • loves museums
  • hates sport

Next to each item write how many eligible people you think are available to you with that characteristic. Be honest. Now write a number next to the Must Haves - how many people do you think have all these characteristics in one? Logic dictates it has to be smaller than any of the individual numbers you gave each characteristic. If you think there are only 92 men with blue eyes, there has to be less than 92 men with blue eyes who also have good jobs (see figure 1).

Now look at your Must nots… I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this… The more items on your “List” the more you lower the odds of finding someone. I’m not suggesting you give up on your core values, but if your “List” is consisting of some superficial items it may be time to reassess your criteria and think about what you are really looking for in a partner.

Landing that job

I’ve pretty much established that waiting to win the lottery is not a smart way to make your money. The only option left to those not lucky enough to have a juicy trust fund waiting for us is to work for our crust, and these days it seems there is less and less crust going round.

Impressing a hiring manager is much like impressing a potential partner. And just like dating, getting a job is a numbers game. I’m not going to repeat myself, but the whole ball pit filled with blue and yellow ball analogy works here too. Apply for as many jobs as you can. The more you apply for, the more chances you give yourself for getting one.

The odds of landing a job are a little different to finding a life partner though. With romance, if you aren’t compatible you aren’t compatible. With a job, as long as you have the ability to do the job, you just need to be the best person that is being interviewed. If you interview enough, that will happen, but it’s like picking balls out at random. Instead you want to know where the yellow balls are to up your chances. Practice your interview skills, build your confidence, gain some experience volunteering and find creative ways to talk about that volunteer work. There is lots of advice out there for how to interview well. A simple Google search will bring up thousands of resources.

The point to take away from all this is that we all have some control over our lives. There are choices we make and actions we take that do have an impact on our outcomes, but probability and chance also plays a role. Being aware of where your actions stop and where sheer luck and numbers come in can help reduce anxiety and guilt. Good luck in your lives, diners. The Cookies will be back with their mystical advice next week. That is the one future I feel comfortable predicting.***


*The numbers in this section are estimates used to illustrate an example. It is an interesting exercise to look at the actual statistics of your city to understand the specific odds you have of meeting someone.

**This list is completely fictional. The AFC Science Advisor is in a very happy relationship and this list in no way reflects the choices she made regarding that relationship.

***While also acknowledging that something could occur that may prevent the Cookie’s from providing their wisdom. I have a high level of confidence but, as a scientist, cannot say with 100% certainty that any event that has not yet occurred will definitely occur in the future.




Why do I want to be with people I can’t have?

Dearest Fortune Cookie, When it comes to dating it seems like I want what I can’t have, and what I can’t have always wants me back… Why do I want to be with people who are already otherwise involved; and furthermore, why do they want to be involved with me?

Asking for the impossible should cause the least disappointment, not the most. And yet it does.

04-12-13-24-45 / 17

Hello Diner. I completely understand. All you want is to have a simple romance with someone available and compatible, but your desires say otherwise. You just want that person. Yes, the one on the left. The one already in the relationship.

What you experienced might have happened at this very restaurant tonight. As you sit down and open a menu, steam from another table catches your eye. It billows from a bowl full of deep green, bright red, and rich brown. It’s the reason this other table came here tonight. The steam carries a symphony of aromatic notes to your defenseless nose. These Diners dig in with big, shiny metal spoons and scoop heaps onto their plates.

You have no idea what it is or whether it has a translatable name (it doesn’t), but your nose, eyes, mouth, and stomach all instantly agree: I want what they’re having.

Before you realize it, your senses conscripted your arm into their manic coup, and it waves the waiter over like a spastic marionette. Now your mouth betrays you. “I want what they’re having,” you say.

The waiter first gives you a quizzical look and smiles at your adventurousness–you brave soul.

With a menu full of options, why that dish? Research shows that the same thing happens with attraction. [1] Your mind efficiently deduces that someone’s partner is probably good mate-material. The theory at work is called “mate copying.” Your brain literally decides, “I’ll have what that person is having.”

The harder question is “why do they want to be involved in me?” There are so many possible reasons. There is research that shows people content in their relationship are less likely to look for (and even notice) something outside of their relationship [2], but really: why wouldn’t someone be attracted to a person who is single and well…attractive?

But, why does it matter? Maybe you just wanted to shout that frustration into the void. But unlike the void, Fortune Cookies answer back, and we are–if nothing else–pragmatic.

Understand that I’m not trying to get out of fulfilling your Order, Diner. You asked a question; you’re right to expect an answer. But in the end, those answers should all be necessary ingredients for happiness. If that person is unable, or worse, unwilling to realize this passion for you, would knowing their motivations make you happier? I sincerely doubt it.

Happiness may look a lot like the person attached to your rival, but in the end happiness is a collection of ideas, experiences, and lifestyle; not a specific person. Look for someone else who is all that and available. They do exist; they just need a little more patience to find–for now. Good luck, Diner.


[1] Place, S. S., Todd, P. M., Penke, L., Asendorph, J. B. (2010). Humans show mate copying after observing real mate choices. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 320 - 325.

[2] Miller, R. S., Simpson, J. A. (1990, August). Relationship satisfaction and attentiveness to alternatives. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Boston, MA. Retrieved from

How do I love completely enough that I’m happy, while not pushing the other person away or getting too invested too soon?

I love without reserve. I love without regard to how it might hurt me in the end. Recently I fell for someone I knew it could never work with, let’s call him my personal Edward Cullen. Perfect. Everybody wants him. However, I’m not Bella. In fact looking at it the other way around he’s Bella and I’m Jacob. I’m going to be in people’s lives who he’s close too. So, I need to know how to let myself feel like I’m loving someone properly and completely without risking becoming a depressed pile of crap over every single person I let myself get close to.

Love, quite simply, is not happiness.

13-23-31-39-53 / 04

Hello Diner. The great thing about compatibility is that it’s self-regulating. If that person desires you as much as you do them, then you simply won’t push the other person away. Of course, two sentences cannot summarize the complexities of love and human nature. Humans are still humans. Everyone has personal boundaries everyone else should respect.

So then, Diner, ask yourself what do you mean by “love”? Without devolving into a discussion on the meaning of life (which we already discussed in this Fortune), my point is: respect for the other person is a large part of love. Among those things that require consideration and respect are their boundaries. That is something neither Edward, Bella, or Jacob had for each other—however many times the word “love” appears in the books. For your sake, I hope you aren’t following their relationship as a guide for yours.

However counterintuitive it seems, a couple should encourage each other to establish and respect boundaries. If you pay attention to those limits and encourage your partner to communicate them more directly, you will have a much easier time keeping yourself from pushing them away. But also understand that if the compatibility isn’t there, it would be best for the relationship to end.

Remember that relationships’ ending is merely a result of one person deciding that the incompatibilities between the couple do not allow that person to meet their long-term goals. Feelings change as you learn more about each other. Making this decision is painful because the culture conditions people to not hurt others and to not be selfish—both of which are necessary to break up with someone. As far as the soon-to-be heartbroken person is concerned, they had all the happiness and affection they need. Changing anything would derail all of that, and it’s painful for the both of you.

The simple fact is that when love ends, it will hurt. To prevent that will be like disentangling light and dark or up and down. Anyone who will not feel hurt at the end did not feel love in the beginning. That is true for the heartbreaker and heartbroken. A force as cosmic as love is hard to stop.

Perspective and resilience will help the pain. Understand that feelings change, but the pursuit of happiness does not. Understand that the goal was there before the person arrived, and it will continue after they leave, whether through a breakup or death. Understand that if either person does not feel present in the relationship, by definition neither will be happy as a couple. Let the relationship end for the sake of your own happiness. Let that be the way of things. Good luck in love, Diner.

Should I ask her out?

Oh mystical fortune cookie, I need help. I am falling in love with a beautiful young lady who I want nothing more than to have be my girlfriend. But I’m afraid—afraid that if I tell her that I really like her she’ll say no, and hate me, and never want anything to ever do with me again. I’m also afraid that she’ll never know, and I’ll be stuck in this awkward “admire from afar” place for forever and a day. What do I do? Do I tell her and risk rejection? Or do I stay silent and lonely forever? help

Go ask her.

09-13-40-52-54 / 34

Hello Diner. The answer to your Order depends on which lady you’re referring to. I see two: the one you describe and the woman everyone sees. More on that second person later.

You write of a beautiful, but rather ruthless person. In this universe of black text, either she dates you or she hates you—forever. If she isn’t your girlfriend, you suffer either unrealizable hope or exile from romantic love—forever.

I see your dilemma, Diner, and I’m glad you’re leaving such a dire life-changing decision to me, your dessert. I’ll do my best.

If she really is this ruthless beauty, run away quickly. Anyone who can be driven to such abject hate just being asked on a date will be a scary, unhealthy partner. Allow me to explain:

Picture a dinner party.

“Do you want the mashed potatoes or the broiled ones?” your host asks, holding up two pans.

“Mashed please, but HOW DARE YOU OFFER ME BROILED POTATOES! I HATE YOU! DON’T EVER SPEAK TO ME AGAIN!” your girlfriend shouts.

She flips the oven-hot pan. The broiled potato spears brand third degree burns onto your host. The permanent scars now serve as a reminder for that evening’s transgression.

You see why I’m worried?

The only reasonable justification for her being upset with you for asking her out is if she has already told you she doesn’t want to date you. Instead, the woman everyone else knows would have a more sane and logical response: yes, I’d love to or thank you, no. She would still be the person you know, and would still want to be your friend. I highly recommend asking that person out.

Rejection is a risk, but it’s one with very minor consequence. By not asking, your fear is making the decision for the both of you: you’re choosing to reject her until she asks you.

Whatever you decide, your anxiety is distorting both of you into completely different people. The woman that everyone knows is not a ruthless person that will shun you forever. She may, very possibly, like you back.

If she doesn’t, your mind will get used to the idea and move on. We talk about that process in this Fortune. You are not an unlovable person who will never find a partner. If this woman sees an incompatibility between you two, it will only free you to find someone more suited for you. Look past her beauty. Trust her judgment. It’s only appropriate if you’re already trusting her with your heart.

If anything, it’s your anxiety that needs scrutiny. Look at how it’s affecting the way you see everyone. Your anxiety makes your friends seem like cruel monsters, and it’s telling you that no one will love you. Yet you trust it unquestioningly. Your anxiety is the true ruthless, unloveable monster that you need to confront and remove from your life forever. I hope your friend will stand with you to face that challenge. Good luck asking her out, Diner.


Why not?

Because there was a coin that spun in cosmic air and landed with the head of an unknown monarch facing up instead of down. Because cause leads to effect and effect to cause. Some of these effects were as small as tiny flecks of dust colliding together. And some were as large as entire solar systems falling into gravitational step with each other.

Because it is neither too hot nor too cold. Too hard nor too soft. Because cells split and multiply and mutate and keep splitting and multiplying and mutating. Because a fish can become a lizard, become a bird, become a wasp, become a cat, become an ape. Because copies are imperfect, and imperfection is creative and creativity is opportunistic and mistakes are forgotten.

Because people need other people. Because those people made sounds that were shared and understood. Because this kept them alive. Because children watched and copied. And copies are imperfect and imperfection is creative and mistakes are rarely mistakes. Because stories are more useful than facts. Because memories are important and words create memories. Because drawings left on walls and spidery lines left on old paper open doors to other times. Because you can understand this sentence. And create a completely new one of your own - that has never been said before - and possibly never will again.

Because blue light scatters more than red light. But also because we know the word blue and by naming things we make them.

Because humans grew up together. Because we are a mirror that lifts a hand when you lift a hand, that furrows a brow when you furrow a brow, that yawns when you yawn.

Because “my land is my land”. And “your land should be my land”. Because “my god is my god”. And “your god is inferior”. Because money. Because lust. Because power. Because hubris.

Because the odds of two people finding each other and being compatible are a single number with long string of zeros after it. Because these odds are defied every day. Because dopamine, because adrenalin, because serotonin, because oxytocin. Because lust. Because friendship. Because a team of two people are better than one.

Because everything dies. Sometimes it is big and meaningful and the world stands by in awe. And sometimes it is meaningless and forgotten and too soon. Or not soon enough.

Because we are alive and aware and capable of experiencing great happiness and equally great heartache. Because we can read and teach and know and ask and laugh and dance. Because we are alone and because we are not alone. Because we are here on the flip of coin. And because tomorrow we may not be.

Because knowledge is power and learning is enjoyable:

Probabilistic origin of the universe -

Big Bang Theory -

Goldilocks Planets -

Evolution -

Origin of language -

Principles of light -

Mirror neurons -

Brain chemistry -

Mme. Liddell once again graces The Advice Fortune Cookie with her secrets of the universe. Divining visions since 1865, there is little she hasn’t seen. You can read her previous Fortune here.



How do I stop thinking about a person whom I’m not supposed to be thinking about? What should I do if I’m in love with someone whom I currently cannot have?

Strive to reach your goals. Just remember people are not goals.

13-29-36-52-55 / 09

Hello Diner. I am sincerely sorry that you cannot realize a relationship with someone you are very attracted to. This advice is not going to work immediately. Also being as Fortune Cookies are non-violent, I cannot advocate forcibly breaking down the obstacles between you and the object of your affections. Nobody is worth hurt or jail.

It is hard not to think about this person because you have had a lot of practice. When your brain learns, the more times the brain reminds itself of that idea, and the more ingrained it becomes. It is like forcing yourself to forget how to ride a bicycle. But, it is possible. Here are some ways that may help:

1. Ending interaction. While it is true that distance will make you miss the person more, there will be a tipping point where not thinking of a person gets easier. If you continually interact with the person, you will fall prey to the mere exposure effect. The person will seem more likeable and attractive

2. Removing reminders. Same with any interaction, anything that triggers memory of the person will make it harder to stop thinking about that person. Put away mementos and pictures.

3. Using the Stop technique. This is popular among cognitive behavioral therapists. When you sense yourself going down the path of obsessing over someone, loudly yell “Stop!” (if socially convenient) and replace your thoughts with something unrelated, interesting, and positive. On the upside, if you do this in front of the person you like, he or she will end interaction for you.

4. Shifting perspective. When you emotionally fantasize about someone, your brain looks for all the things that support your idea that this person is ideal for you. Instead of focusing on the positive, shift your perspective to notice any of these: how the person doesn’t return your affections, things about their personality you really do not like, or how the situation of your being together simply can never be. With this idea in mind, look for things that support how it is very unlikely you will be together.

5. Adjusting focus and practicing mindfulness. Simple interesting or exciting distractions will help you stop fantasizing. Meditation is a great way to achieve refocus away from that person. When you meditate, pay attention to what you physically sense (sounds and smells of your surroundings).

6. Lobotomy. This should be done by a reputable lobotomist. Ask the lobotomist to focus on the emotional parts of your brain. Hint: this is very deep inside your head, and this Fortune Cookie does NOT recommend it, but for completeness, here it is.

So there you have it, Diner: remove interactions or reminders and refocus your attention. This will seem daunting–almost impossible to do–however, your asking me this question tells me you are looking to move on. Try any of these suggestions to see if they work. Remember that you already started this journey to feel better. All this cannot happen without your willingness to stop being stuck in yearning. Be honest with yourself when you think you are ready. If you don’t want to let go, you simply won’t let go. Good luck.

How do you gracefully tell someone who is into you romantically that you are not into him/her in that way?

Love is a battlefield.  – Pat Benatar
There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.  – Sun Tzu

05-06-10-13-45 / 10

Hello Diner.  If you humans had the ability to directly feed your thoughts to someone else guaranteeing that he or she will agree with you, there would be no disagreements or wars.  We Fortune Cookies communicate that way, which is why there are no arguments or fights among us.  But there is also no diversity.  The obstacles of communication make you unique.

So why do you want this done, “gracefully,” Diner?  This could mean two things.  If by “graceful” you mean elegantly, perfectly, and above rebuke, then leaving your friend hanging to consult a Fortune Cookie has caused that ship to sail.  Ambiguity is the enemy.  Making a person wait is ambiguity.  Giving a person hope or an open ended response–however “nice” that seems–is ambiguity.  The most graceful way is to be clear and definite.

But if by “graceful” you instead mean “painless to the person,” then it is not entirely up to you.  It depends on how deeply the person feels for you and how personally your friend will take the rejection.  Unless you deliberately throw insults or feign affection, how much hurt you give is beyond your control.  It does not matter how much you hone your delivery.  Being empathetic but direct is the most graceful approach. This person thinks very highly of you and is in a very vulnerable position. The least you can do is acknowledge that.  

Breaking this news usually puts you in the bad-guy spot, even though you did not ask to be.  But your friend owes you respect to your boundaries.  There cannot be visits at unwanted times or even guilt for the romantic control you have.  Because people like you are generally very accommodating to people they know, they feel bad hurting the feelings of someone who is simply being “nice” and “affectionate.”  This is called cognitive dissonance.  Your comfort zone should be respected over everything.  If this is the case, a polite and firm rebuke is the most graceful–and appropriate–thing to do.

Diner, the most graceful way is not being gentle or evasive.  Be brave, be considerate, but understand your boundaries.  Hold the person in as little suspense as possible, and be direct.  Once your friend digest the initial sting, you both can move on with your respective lives, whether it is apart or together.  

If bravery is not one of your traits, feel free to link your friend to this Fortune.  He or she will get the message.  Hi, friend.  I’m sorry.