People overrate the chances of dying in a plane crash and guess incorrectly at the odds that a coin toss will yield ‘heads’ after a string of several ‘tails’. Yet humans have an innate sense of chance, a study of indigenous Maya people suggests. Adults in Guatemala who have never learned a formal number system or a written language did as well as formally educated adults and children at estimating the probability of chance events1, the researchers found.
Children are born with a sense of number, and the roots of our mathematical abilities seem to exist in monkeys, chickens and even salamanders. But evidence has suggested that the ability to assess the chances of a future event is not as innate.
In a 1972 study, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and the late psychologist Amos Tversky found that educated adults incorrectly judged the sequence of coin tosses ‘heads-heads-heads-tails-tails-tails’ as less probable than ‘heads-tails-heads-tails-tails-heads’2. (Any such sequence has the same exact probability, 1/64, of occurring.) Other researchers have pointed to the fact that the mathematics of probability were not worked out until the seventeenth century to argue that probabilistic reasoning is not innate and relies on formal education.
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