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Off Beat – 11 May 2012

A clever mathematician also mentioned to me that if you have the right data, you can prove that people with blue hair and blond eyes are more likely to buy ice cream on a hot day, further proof that statistics can be amazing fun, especially if you have a gullible ice-cream marketer hanging onto your every word.

Anyone who thinks that statistics are boring hasn’t thought enough about statistics. Statistics are fun.
Imagine three guys in a stand-off. One of them, the really psychotic one, has a revolver with one bullet in it. The other two each have a fifty percent chance of making it through without the need for emergency services and a heft hit on their medical insurance, assuming that the guy with the gun doesn’t pull the trigger then pistol whip the one who he didn’t shoot.
Now imagine our aggrieved psycho actually got into an argument with four guys. Each person  on the other end of the barrel has a twenty five per cent chance of a call from the undertaker. Assuming they have another four buddies who are sidling up with grim looks on their faces, the chances of each of the individuals needing hospitalisation are twelve point five per cent, or are they?
Actually the chances are between zero per cent and one hundred percent that there will be some blood spilled. Our crazed individual has to pull the trigger or look at the odds, get his head together and back down. If he uses his only bullet, the crowd can restrain him or beat him into a squelchy pulp. If he doesn’t pull the trigger the crowd can use the same options.
In this Quentin Tarantino scenario, the possibility of violence became a complex variable depending on the moods of all the players involved, but as the crowd grew, the potential loss of population diminished, and so did the danger to each individual. There is a basic proof that if the psycho has one bullet, not a machine gun with many bullets, there is safety in numbers.
A clever mathematician also mentioned to me that if you have the right data, you can prove that people with blue hair and blond eyes are more likely to buy ice cream on a hot day, further proof that statistics can be amazing fun, especially if you have a gullible ice-cream marketer hanging onto your every word.
As long as you aren’t that marketer, there is notional and practical safety in numbers. As the differential between the possible force on one side and the possible force on the other side continues to increase, this becomes more and more true. The only thing the individual who is faced with a threat has to do, is to try and stay unnoticed, possibly edging to the back of the crowd with a sheepish grin and leaving the majority of the risk to the heroes up front.
But there are costs in achieving this level of safety.
Firstly, to draw the benefit of the crowd, the individual has to merge with the crowd. Seeking the benefit of being an individual while drawing on the safety of the crowd can be difficult. In fact the crowd might decide that highly individualistic behaviour, such as psychosis and an unhealthy interest in guns, might not be a good thing, and decide to take pre-emptive action by hammering on the peg that sticks out.
Secondly, in a relatively uniform and aware crowd, assuming nobody wants to be a hero, everyone is required to share the risk in the event of danger. Standing at the back with a sheepish grin might not get the individual noticed by the aggressor, but if the situation is repeated enough times, the individuals who are persistently found at the back of crowds may get pushed to the front in order to better share the risk.
Here’s a different way of looking at it. Perhaps the need for a crowd is wrong, or can be reduced. For instance, why were our two original individuals hanging out in the presence of the psycho? The chances are that the venue was a place where the emotions of unruly individuals can become whipped up. Perhaps our daring duo could have hung out somewhere else?
Or perhaps they might not have taunted him about his choice of sports team, wife, girlfriend or whatever, to the point where he felt the need to draw a gun to defend his honour and make the voices in his head go away.
The crowd may be a safety mechanism, but it may be a false comfort as well. There are times when avoiding numbers is the safest way to go.

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