4 min read
I recently downloaded a trivia app called HQ. Once per day, there is a live HQ trivia game. If you can answer 12 multiple choice questions in a row correctly, you win a cash prize. Typically the prize is $5,000, but on weekends it can be as high as $250,000.
Around 1 million people play (no exaggeration) on any given day and the total prize is split evenly among everyone who answers all 12 questions correctly.
The psychology and probability associated with this game is so intriguing to me.
When the game starts, a live announcer pops up on your screen and excitedly says “you are playing for a prize of $5,000 today!”
They go on to say something like “imagine what you could buy with that kind of money!”
This is the first bit of subtle psychology used. The odds of you actually winning $5,000 are virtually zero. More than likely, the prize of $5,000 will be split between hundreds, if not thousands, of people who answer all 12 questions correctly. This means you would only win between $1 and $15.
It’s much more exciting to hear that you could win $5,000, though.
The next bit of psychology comes when the questions appear on your screen. For each question, you have to choose among three possible answers. The first three questions are very easy. Almost everyone answers them correctly.
This tactic itself is genius. By answering a few questions correctly, you begin to feel that you’re progressing through the game, getting closer to that 12th question.
Questions 4 through 7 are usually pretty hard. Questions 8 through 12 are nearly impossible. You basically have to guess randomly on them.
This leads to an interesting thought experiment: What is the probability that you’ll answer all twelve questions correctly and win the game?
To answer this, let’s assign some probabilities of getting each question correct. For the first three, the probabilities are pretty high. As you progress from 4 to 7, the probability begins to decrease. Questions 8 through 12 usually require guessing, so you have a 33% (1 in 3) chance of getting each of those correct.
The way we find the probability of you winning the game is by simply multiplying together all the probabilities of answering each question correctly:
(I made these probabilities up)
99% * 99% * 95% * 80% * 70% * 60% * 40% * 33% * 33% * 33% * 33% *33% = .05%
If we assume 1 million people playing all have a .05% chance of winning, we can expect about 515 players to win. A prize of $5,000 split evenly 515 ways means each player would win about $9.71.
For this little thought experiment, I made up the probabilities, but they seem reasonable. During most games I actually do see players win anywhere from $1 to $15.
Now, winning $9.71 isn’t close to $5,000, but it’s still free money that people could win from playing a fun game.
Consider instead if HQ made the questions slightly easier and more people won each game. This means the $5,000 prize would be split among more players, which would mean each player would win less. Imagine if players typically only won 10 or 15 cents instead. I bet a heck of a lot less people would play the game.
What HQ has done so well is find the perfect balance between paying enough winners a decent little prize. The 515 people who win will undoubtedly tell their friends about the game, and the prize they won was enough to make the game worth playing.
HQ has used some basic probability theory to create a massively successful app and I think this same line of thinking can be applied nicely to personal finance. Here are three ways you can use probabilities to increase your chances of success financially.
1. Systematically making more attempts. Last summer I sent my resume out to 10 companies and only successfully interviewed with one, which lead to my current job. Suppose my probability of being rejected by any one of those companies was 75%. This means my probability of being rejected by all ten companies would be:
75% * 75% * 75% * 75% * 75% * 75% * 75% * 75% * 75% * 75% = 5.6%
That’s a small number. By simply sending out my resume to more companies, I increased the probability that I would hear back from at least one of them.
2. Systematically reducing investment expenses. This one is a no-brainer. If you invest in a fund that charges a 2% annual expense ratio, that fund would have to outperform a passive index fund with a .05% ann. expense ratio by 1.95% each year just to deliver the same returns.
Outperforming diversified passive index funds is no easy task. You can increase the probability that you earn higher investment returns by systematically avoiding paying unnecessary fees.
3. Systematically exposing yourself to podcasts, books, blogs, and people who are good with money. Listening to the Mad Fientist Podcast does not guarantee that you’ll get any better at managing your money. It does, however, increase the probability that you’ll hear one or two tactics that might help you save more or earn more.
Reading blogs about minimalism or frugal-living doesn’t guarantee that you’ll spend less. But it might help you view consumption from a different perspective. It may give you just one insight on how to save more money without sacrificing your happiness.
Spending time with people who are good with money won’t automatically make you good with money. That requires action on your part. However, you might begin to change the way you view money and your finances as you spend more time with people who are crushing the personal finance game.
By regularly exposing yourself to resources and people who are good with money, you’ll slowly build up your personal finance toolkit that you can use to improve your own finances over time.
The Power of Probabilities
Just as HQ uses probabilities to increase the success of their app, you can use probabilities in your everyday life to increase your chances of financial success. It won’t happen overnight, but the more you tilt the odds in your favor, the more inevitable success becomes.
My favorite free financial tool I use is Personal Capital. I use it to track my net worth, manage my spending, and keep an eye on my monthly cash flow. It only takes a few minutes to set up and it makes tracking your finances simple and easy. I recommend trying it out.
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