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.




How do I have a conversation about my spouse’s breath?

Help me, Fortune Cookie! I love my husband very much. But there’s an issue. His grooming standards are not all that great. In particular, his breath is atrocious. I find myself not wanting to kiss him because the odor (some fetid combination of rancid milk and manure) turns my stomach. How do I address this without making him feel upset and insulted? Thank you!

Deliver bad news with alcohol. Listerine is 27% alcohol.

07-13-18-25-37 / 24

Hello Diner. I’m glad this came in as an Order because it’s universal and difficult. Every part of the Fortune Cookie is fragrant and palatable, but humans nourish ten times more bacteria than the total number of cells in their body. Some are bound to make unpleasant odors at mood-killing times. The phrase “to be human” implies not only imperfection but unpleasant natural processes. Despite knowing this, people still feel ashamed when they’re called out for behaving–and smelling–as expected.

So at least I understand your position. This Fortune is not one about odors or brutal honesty, but one about diplomacy. Others can easily say: “just use your words to tell them the truth. A good partner would accept it.” But if it were that easy, this wouldn’t even be a question for you.

That said, you and your husband should move toward having such a relationship dynamic. But that process in itself is difficult and may need a whole other Fortune to discuss later. To that end, I’ll answer the question at hand:

1. Understand your husband’s specific concerns. You may have arrived at this question by looking at the situation with your own set of sensitivities. You may not want to be told your breath stinks for your own reasons. Are you sure your husband has those same reasons?

2. Understand your needs. No less important are your needs. Take time to organize your thoughts. Why is this important to you? What would you like to see change? Saying something is a problem without offering solutions not only is unhelpful to the person (who was going along fine until this discussion), but it may also seem like an attack.

3. Be respectful but direct. Understand that a marriage is an equal partnership where you two respect each other. Acknowledge (and remember) that you’re dealing with another human being with emotions and pride. Think of an intimate embrace. It’s only effective if you’re not wishy-washy about it, but at the same time, you’re not crushing the other person.

4. Practice good couples’ communication. The Internet is full of tips for this. A good practice is to use “I” statements: “I feel ___ when you do ___.”

5. Watch those colorful adjectives. Your description of his breath was very vivid, but choosing words with negative connotations like the ones you used would just make your partner feel more shameful. This isn’t a pleasant experience for either of you.

6. Don’t tack it onto another argument. Be careful about a discussion about this one topic becoming an airing of all your grievances. A string of disagreements would just seem like attacks. Better yet, talk about it when you two are in good moods.

7. Be on the same side. You aren’t his judge and jury. It isn’t a “you are wrong, now change” situation. The two of you own the problem. Make the lifestyle change something you can both do and keep doing.

The important thing is that sparing his emotions is not the way to go. If you remember you’re on the same team and fix the problem together, the discussion will go much more successfully than if you frame it like he’s in the wrong. Good luck, Diner.

How do I get over losing trust?

Six months after getting married, my husband and I went through some really hard times financially because of his issues with depression, and I lost all of my trust in him because of it. We’re 2 years in now, and while I trust him 95% of the time, sometimes I get hit by this awful wave of sadness and anger. How do I get over this? He’s gotten help for the depression, so I know he wouldn’t do it again even if he had the opportunity.

Patience cannot unlock doors.

03-13-22-40-58 / 34

Hello Diner. I am sorry you suffered from these tragedies. I understand that you want to know how to get over this betrayal. Because trust is such a fundamental part of a relationship, losing trust isn’t something to “get over”; you don’t simply grow accustomed to this damage. Instead, you need to rebuild trust in order to resolve these feelings.

People often believe trust is a replenishable resource like affection or love. They think that if the guilty party does certain things or keep a clean record for so long, there is an expectation to consider his debt “paid.” I think you’re at this point, and you’re wondering why the “debt” still seems unpaid. You still don’t trust your husband. Rather than being an emotion you give and receive, trust is more of a structural part in a relationship. It’s the door through which the shared emotions of the relationship like affection and love pour. The positive, trusting interactions with your partner as a whole helped you decide what shape to make this door. Once you’ve settled on how vulnerable you are–how wide the door is–it takes a lot of work to make it bigger like it would in a regular house. But like any physical house, a major disaster can quickly seal that opening.

If you have just been forcing yourself to consider good behavior as “payments” against this loss of trust, there are very good reasons why you still feel hurt. You have to put in work to create that sense of trust. It requires a completely new view of not only your husband, but your emotional losses because of this betrayal. The old sense of trust is destroyed, and trying to even the score of this past hurt won’t help. You need a whole new way of looking at your husband and the unfairness to finally move past the hurt.

You’re figuratively relearning how to speak or walk after a tragic accident. I recommend the help of a psychologist to resolve your feeling of betrayal. While working with the counselor, understanding your husband’s perspective in the context of depression will help build trust. This anger may be from believing your husband meant to lie to you and put you in financial turmoil. When someone is suffering from depression, irrational actions like deception or avoidance may seem like the best option to avoid pain and conflict. I’m not implying that it excuses him from the realities of debts and responsibilities, but being on the same team will help you the most in learning how to count on your husband again. Good luck on your long journey, Diner. I can assure you that it’s worth it.

Is the concept of faithfulness working?

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. – P. McCartney

03-08-13-39-53 / 25

Hello Diner. We Fortune Cookies are baked, not born. As such we do not have personal judgments on faithfulness. When we see a man bring his family to our restaurant one night and then a series of young ladies other nights, we keep our folds shut as always, revealing only the wisdom we carry.

Individuals cheat to gain acceptance, variety, and excitement. New, discreet relations garner affirmation and staves off boredom. From a biological standpoint, males benefit from infidelity by increasing the chance of producing offspring, but research also confirms that there are downsides. Sexual cheating produces a lot more jealousy in men, and women feel more threatened by emotional infidelity.[1] The evolutionary reasons have to do with expending resources. If a female has other illicit partners, her primary mate may put in energy to help his competitor’s genes survive, thinking the child was his all along. If a male falls in love with someone else, his mate will lose the resources he can bring.[1]

But in the thousands of years for evolution to take place, what’s a few hurt feelings, right? Children would still survive–just not ones fully genetically related to the original pair. However, research also shows that collectively punishing cheaters promoted cooperation within the group.[2] If you know everyone enforces punishments to cheating, you’d feel safer trusting people.

Research seems to show as many biological and evolutionary benefits driving infidelity as there are monogamy. Modern society also makes having many children and support from both parents a lot less important. Regardless of the conceptual, at the heart of this question are two people with emotions, history, and maybe children together. Is faithfulness working for you, Diner? Whatever you decide, I only advise that you act honestly. That is why faithfulness holds little meaning: in the end only the truth and the happiness of both you and your family matter to Fortune Cookies.




[1] Buss, D.M., Larsen, R.J., Westen, D., Semmerlroth, J. (1992). Sex differences in jealousy: Evolution, physiology, and psychology. Psychological Science, 3(4), 251-255

[2] Boyd, R., Gintis, H., & Bowles, S. (2010). Coordinated punishment of defectors sustains cooperation and can proliferate when rare. Science, 328 (5978), 617-620 DOI: 10.1126/science.1183665

How can I stay in a long term relationship without becoming bored?

Look within or be without.

08-15-18-33-57 / 13

Hello Diner. This feeling of becoming bored is natural to everyone. Scientists call this process hedonic adaptation. Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote on its details and how to mindfully control its effect. This Fortune will apply her concepts to your situation.

Hedonic adaptation is your mind’s way to adapt to positive or negative events. While it is the process that gives you that bored feeling, it allows you to heal from traumatic events like break ups or losses and get on with life. Without it, you will experience all the emotions from each event in your life at full intensity, but having it also brings that wonderful relationship honeymoon period to an end. Your personal experience probably shows that you get over new positive things a lot more quickly than something tragic.

Thankfully you can control its pace:

Appreciate the good. Pay attention to the good things that came about because of your partner–not just the nice things he or she has done, but how your life has improved.

Celebrate successes. Couples almost automatically vent at each other at the end of the day and (hopefully) empathize. Remember to share and celebrate good things.

Do fulfilling activities. Activities that are fulfilling and challenging (like learning new skills, going on adventures, building stronger connections with friends) can give you an ever-changing variety of new experiences.

Surprise yourself. Use your not having done something as a reason to do it, not as an excuse. Say yes. Give naysayers a chance to respect you for trying something they are too afraid to.

Balance routine with variety. Dr. Lyubomirsky’s studies showed doing a variety of things for your partner will yield a lot more happiness than doing the same nice thing over and over. It doesn’t have to heart-pounding, expensive, or something no other person has done, ever.

Let it affect your life. Let this partner change you for the better. Positivity brings about more positivity (likewise with negativity). Volunteering, being supportive, and showing appreciation are welcomed changes to your personality. Don’t let friends shame you.

Manage your expectations. When you start adapting to the positive experience, your sense of “normal” reaches a plateau. This causes an ever-climbing need for more excitement. Understanding this tendency will help you maintain a fulfilling relationship.

Throughout this Fortune, I stress “do” over “accumulate.” Even though you can use these suggestions to stave off getting used to new things, things not only stay the same, but wear and tear over time. Experiences are new every single time. Take care of your own personal boredom, and the excitement will naturally influence your personal relationship.




Folkman, Susan (Ed), (2011). The Oxford handbook of stress, health, and coping. Oxford library of psychology, (pp. 200-224). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, xvi, 469 pp

How do I get my husband to help out?

If I ask my husband to do a task, he will—by his nature—not do it because he does not like to be nagged or told what to do. So how can I get him to perform said task? We have talked about this and he knows this is common occurrence, yet it continues to happen. What do I do? Some tasks only he can perform.

A good marriage is made of one heart and four hands.

11-13-32-41-57 / 16

Hello Diner. There is a lot already going for you: you’ve spoken about the problem, and you both agree it’s something that needs to change. As you can imagine, the situation would be more difficult to address if you two are not in alignment. I would like to point out and question a few things you have said, though: “by his nature,” “he does not like to be nagged,” and “some tasks only he can perform.”

Your husband is far from the only one who procrastinates on difficult tasks whether or not their significant others ask them. You should not take it as a slight, and I hope you do not see it as a unique personality flaw in your husband. Let’s just say there are a lot Fortune Cookie-sized towels I still need to fold.

I can also safely say that no one likes being nagged. My point in bringing this up is simple: you and your husband are on the same team, and a power distance between you two will inadvertently build resentment (for example, one spouse being the “boss” and the other the “employee”). The resentment would be present on both ends. The spouse may see the other as lazy, while they feel nagged. Resentment can manifest as anything from coldness to arguments to divorce. Things were a lot different when you two fell in love and got married. Otherwise, the marriage didn’t start out on equal footing, and that is a more important issue to deal with.

I am not suggesting that you have to choose between harmony in your marriage and getting stuff done. Making that choice itself would cause resentment. There is unfortunately no getting around responsibilities. However, I can’t stress enough how the process of getting stuff done should not be combative. Air grievances and come to resolutions. Agree that you two are on the same team. I suggest not moving beyond this step until that is worked out.

If you have worked that out, I recommend making ownership and accountability more prevalent when dealing with these unpleasant chores. A whiteboard is also important to have in this next step.

Establishing ownership. A major part of motivation is to take ownership of the task from beginning to end. I don’t mean taking on all of the work. I mean actually agreeing to take on the responsibility of getting the task done. It is 100% OK to ask for help.

Promoting accountability. You and your spouse have divvied up the work by responsibility. Writing the task down on the whiteboard will give you both a constant reminder of your commitment to finishing it. You and your spouse then commit to a mutually negotiated date on which the chore will get done. Again, write it down to make this agreement concrete.

Set up rewards. With the task and due date defined, negotiate on incentives to encourage getting the chore done on time. It will be something to look forward to.

Sustain the whiteboard. From here, you both have to agree to keep to these agreements. It’s important that both you and your spouse agree to take the list, dates, and incentives seriously.

Consider outsourcing. You mentioned there are jobs only your husband can do. I think you mean “your husband—or a paid service professional—can do.”

So there you have it, Diner. First and foremost, make sure you are on the same team. After that, the nuts and bolts of doing the chore become the focus. From here, you commit to each other that you will finish the list together. Incentives will make finishing the tasks that much more rewarding. If the chore really sucks for both of you, you can always pay someone to do it. Welcome to adulthood, Diners. Welcome.