Millions of Americans buy lottery tickets each year, even though most people know their chances of winning are slim at best. Why do they bother when taking home the grand prize is less likely than dying in a plane crash or being struck by lightning?
Humans often struggle to grasp probability, especially when guessing the odds of things that could happen in their lives. Generally speaking, this deficiency is due to three very human problem-solving crutches: representativeness, availability, and anchoring.
With representativeness, people base assumptions on similarities or overvalue a small sampling as indicative of a larger truth. Availability is based on recency bias or the assumption that because something just happened, it is more likely to happen again. Anchoring is what people do when they lean too heavily into early reference points, such as going to an expensive store where a discounted article of clothing appears inexpensive in comparison to the initial price despite it still being aggressively inflated.
Stacker took the guesswork out of 50 random events to determine how likely they are to happen. We sourced our information from government statistics, scientific articles, and other primary documents. Keep reading to find out why expectant parents shouldn’t count on due dates—and why you should be more worried about dying on your birthday than living to 100 years old.
Getting struck by lightning
The U.S. Weather Service places a person’s odds of being struck by lightning in a given year at 1 in 1,222,000 people, based on population. That probability climbs significantly when looking at the odds of being struck by lightning in a lifetime—1 in 15,300—averaging that lifetime to be 80 years.
Agência Brasil Fotografias // Wikimedia Commons
Winning an Olympic medal
The 2022 Winter Olympics featured 2,897 athletes across 109 medal events. In total, 551 competitors won medals in both individual and team events. This means that 19% of Olympic athletes, or roughly 1 in 5, won medals in Beijing. When expanding to include the general populace, the odds dwindle substantially—an everyday person with eyes on the gold has a 1 in 662,000 chance of reaching an Olympic podium.
Staselnik // Wikimedia Commons
Being killed in a plane crash
Take a deep breath and board that plane with confidence: Your chances of being killed in an airplane crash, based on population size and average rate of flying, are only 1 in 11 million. There were 40 airplane accidents in 2020, five of which were fatal, killing 299 people. In 2019, 86 accidents were recorded, and eight were fatal, causing the death of 257 people.
You’re setting up a nursery and buying a crib, but should you build it for two? Roughly 1 in every 250 natural pregnancies results in twins. The odds of having twins increase for older mothers and those receiving fertility treatments. Though there is a gene that makes women more likely to have fraternal twins, men who inherit it are no more likely to have twins in the family, and it doesn’t increase the chance of having identical twins.
Will Campbell // Wikimedia Commons
Dying in a tornado
With roughly 25 deaths per year from tornadoes on average, the odds of dying in a tornado are 1 in 13,000,000. Those odds go up if you’re in a mobile home, live in frequent paths of these storms, or take undue risks when a tornado is nearby.
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Mark Ou // Flickr
Winning the lottery
If you’re hoping to win the lottery, you’re either very lucky or bad at math. Your odds of winning the lottery depend on which game you’re playing and, for some games, how many other people are playing. Generally speaking, your odds of winning a prize in Powerball are 1 in 24.9. The odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 292.2 million. Your chances are even worse for winning the Mega Millions jackpot: 1 in 302.6 million.
Being saved by CPR
The American Heart Association points to data showing that up to 45% of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest victims recover when CPR is administered. Most of these emergencies—almost 70%—occur in people’s homes, making it helpful for all family members, even children with the requisite physical strength, to learn how to administer CPR.
Navicore // Wikimedia Commons
Killed by a meteorite impact
Meteorites may be at the heart of many science fiction and disaster films, but when it comes down to real science, Earth is a big planet covered by large, uninhabited areas. Considering the empty versus occupied planetary surface area, you have pretty low-if-wide-ranging odds—between 1 in 3,000 and 1 in 250,000, according to one estimate—of being killed by a meteorite impact.
cygnus921 // Flickr
Finding a four-leaf clover
This genetic plant quirk brings the luck of the Irish to just 1 in every 10,000 clovers, says Dr. John Frett, professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware.
That doesn’t mean you won’t find one, though: The Guinness World Record for the most four-leaf clovers collected in a single hour goes to Gabriella Gerhardt of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, who, on Sept. 21, 2019, gathered 451.
TravelingOtter // Flickr
Getting audited by the IRS
Paying taxes is stressful enough without worrying about getting audited. In 2019, the IRS audited roughly 1 in every 220 individual taxpayers. Overall, you’re more likely to get that call from the IRS if you file for income of $0 or more than $10 million.
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Gerwin Sturm // Flickr
Bowling a perfect game
It’s a good time to be a bowler, as more advanced equipment has helped people significantly improve at the sport. The American Bowling Congress recorded the number of perfect games rising from 905 in 1968 to 34,470 in 1998. Even with the changes, the odds of a professional player bowling a perfect game are about 460 to 1, while those for a casual player stand at 11,500 to 1.
Living to 100
Technological advances have more than doubled human life expectancy worldwide in the last century—and in 2021, the United Nations estimated about 573,000 living centenarians to worldwide. In February of 2021, 97,000 people in their 100s were alive in the U.S. Women have much higher odds of reaching this feat than men, as women make up more than 80% of centenarians.
But don’t go planning your 100th birthday party quite yet—your odds fluctuate by a host of factors, not the least of which being those who are youngest now have a significantly higher chance of living to 100 than the rest of us.
Earning a perfect score on the SAT
Though it won’t guarantee college admission, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get a perfect score on the SAT. But few manage such a feat: Only 504 of the 1,698,521 students who took the SAT in 2015—0.03%—got every point. Things didn’t get any easier after the test was redesigned in 2016.
Test administrators no longer release precise numbers, but suffice it to say that in 2020 just 7% of the 2.2 million test-takers scored between 1400 and 1600, with 1600 representing a perfect score.
Getting your car stolen
Car theft had been declining for decades, but it’s creeping back up. There were around 810,400 car thefts in 2020, representing an 11.8% jump from 2019. Of the 275.9 million vehicles registered in the U.S. that year, there is about a 0.3% chance your car will be stolen.
Seeing your congressperson reelected
While approval ratings jump up and down, there’s at least a 90% chance a congressional representative running for reelection will be successful. Though the figure dipped to 84% in 2010, otherwise, it hasn’t gone below 90% since 1974. The reelection rate to Congress in 2020 was a sky-high 96% nationally.
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Having food poisoning
Listeria, salmonella, E. coli are just a few organisms capable of causing food poisoning. One in 6 Americans will experience food poisoning in a year, according to FoodSafety.gov. Of the 48 million who become ill, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Foods that are eaten raw and difficult to clean are especially risky.
Will Hart // Flickr
Getting into Harvard
With the applicant pool more than doubling at Harvard in recent years, the odds are increasingly stacked against prospective students. In 2018, admission rates dropped below 5% for the first time to 4.59%.
In 2021, the acceptance rate stood at 3.2%. It’s best to apply early to increase your chances: Harvard accepted 7.8% of early applicants that same year.
Losing something in the mail
Be careful when you address an envelope or a parcel. Of the 88 million lost items the U.S. Postal Service’s Mail Recovery Center received in 2014, it was only able to return 2.5 million. That’s less than 3%.
While it’s impossible to know how many items actually get lost in the mail, averages stand between 3% and 4.7%. Some postal centers host online auctions to sell off unclaimed items.
Airman 1st Class Chris Drzazgowski // U.S. Air Force
Becoming a bone marrow donor
Many people sign up for bone marrow registries, but because you need an actual match with a patient to donate, not everyone ends up donating bone marrow. National marrow donor program Be the Match reports the likelihood of becoming a donor at the time of joining a registry is just 1 in 430.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration says only 30% of people who need a bone marrow transplant have a relative who matches them.
Bernard DUPONT // Flickr
Dying in a shark attack
Films like “Jaws” and “Sharknado” have primed people to fear shark attacks, but in reality, it’s very unlikely to happen. If you live within 100 miles of a coastline, the odds of an unprovoked shark attack killing you are about 1 in 3.7 million. If you don’t live near a coast, your death-by-shark odds are 1 in 7 million.
Surfers are most likely to encounter sharks since the best places for catching a wave are also where sharks like to gather.
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Patricia Marks // Shutterstock
Being named Emma or Jacob
The Social Security Administration gathers and analyzes name data each year, offering tremendous insight into past and present periods. Emma and Jacob rank as the top two most popular baby names of the 21st century, according to SSA data from 2000 to 2019, released in September 2020. Utilizing the Baby Name Uniqueness Analyzer, we found the odds of being named Emma (for girls) or Jacob (for boys) in 2021 stood at 1 in 115 girls and 1 in 222 boys, respectively.
mike krzeszak // Flickr
Having trouble hearing
Half of all adults older than 75 have disabling hearing loss, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports. It’s not just senior citizens, either: 14% of adults ages 20 to 69 have trouble hearing the frequencies of human voices. Two to three of every 1,000 American children are born with documented hearing loss.
Becoming an astronaut
If you always dreamed of being an astronaut when you grew up, we’ve got bad news for you. Of the 18,300 people who applied to NASA in 2016—the first time the agency opened applications since 2011—only 10 made the cut for the 2017 training class.
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Dying in a car accident
Your odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash stand statistically higher than most causes of death, at 1 in 101. Despite Americans driving an estimated 13% fewer miles in 2020 (likely due to COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions and business closures), the country saw a 24% jump in the rate of road-related deaths over 2019, according to the National Safety Council.
Graduating from college within six years
College completion rates vary by school, gender, geography, and a host of other factors. Women are more likely to finish their degrees than men; and at highly selective institutions, more students are likely to finish on time. On average, data show that as many as 6 in 10 students who enroll at two-year community colleges and for-profit, four-year schools will not graduate within six years.
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vinstock // Shutterstock
Needing long-term care insurance
Those of us with insurance buy it with the hope of never having to use it. But when it comes to long-term care insurance, few people invest in the service despite 58% of women and 47% of men 65 and older will need long-term care in their lifetimes. Just 2.3% of Americans actually have insurance to cover that long-term care, with a 50% chance that a 60-year-old who buys a policy will use it sometime before death.
Sam Greenhalgh // Flickr
The person next to you being able to read this
While a text-focused culture like the U.S. may appear to take literacy for granted, estimates suggest 43 million adults in the U.S., or 21%, can’t read—that’s 1 in 7 adults, based on population. Groups like the American Library Association offer free adult literacy classes for those looking for resources.
Alex Hinds // Shutterstock
The odds you can use both hands equally for any task are low: Readers Digest reports that only 1 in every 100 people is ambidextrous. Some people may learn to use their nondominant hand out of convenience or necessity, but that’s not the same thing.
Dying in a hurricane
Better hurricane-prediction systems have helped reduce the number of fatalities from storms—most of the nation’s deadliest hurricane seasons happened more than 50 years ago. A 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, killed around 8,000 people. The death toll from 2017’s hurricanes in Puerto Rico was updated to 2,975 nearly a year after the storms made landfall. Generally speaking, your odds of dying in a hurricane are 1 in 62,288.
HTO // Wikimedia Commons
Cracking open a double-yolked egg
The odds of cracking open an egg with a double yolk are about 1 in 1,000, and often come from younger hens. If you crack an egg every day, you’re only likely to get a double yolk once every three years. Because the universe can be truly random, you could also end up with an entire carton of double-yolk eggs—like one British man did in 2016.
Ada Be // Flickr
Your house burning down
Spok83 // Shutterstock
Being killed by falling furniture
Being injured or killed by unstable furniture falling over is rare: Between 2000 and 2019, 451 children died from furniture and appliances falling over. Most tip-over accidents involve bookshelves, dressers, TVs, and TV stands. Throughout your lifetime, the odds of you being so much as knocked over by falling furniture is 1 in 5,508.
Erik Drost // Wikimedia Commons
Playing for a professional sports team
Though plenty of kids dream of becoming pro athletes, there’s simply not enough room on the proverbial court for the almost 8 million high school athletes competing across the country. Just over 480,000—or 6%— end up on a National Collegiate Athletic Association team in college. From there, the number who move on to pro teams or the Olympics is even smaller: 1.2% of NCAA men’s basketball players and 0.8% of women’s basketball players go on to major pro levels.
Andrey Arkusha // Shutterstock
Becoming a millionaire
Winning the lottery isn’t in the cards for most people, but that doesn’t mean your odds of becoming wealthy are insurmountable. Each of us has between a 6.4% and 22.3% chance of becoming a millionaire, depending on many factors including education level, wealth, race, and age. More education improves chances all around, but race plays the most significant factor, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found.
Death by bees
Bees might seem like harmless, fuzzy pollinators, but alongside wasps and hornets, they are responsible for nearly 60 deaths a year and hundreds of thousands of emergency room visits. Your odds of dying from one of these stinging insects is 1 in 57,825.
Steve Johnson // Flickr
Getting lead poisoning
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, became an international story in 2015 after news broke that city officials had known and done nothing about lead pipes contaminating the city’s water, poisoning thousands of children. But they’re not the only ones suffering the developmental effects of lead poisoning: As many as 500,000 American children younger than 6 have elevated amounts of lead in their systems.
Someone you know identifies as LGBTQ+
The Supreme Court’s 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage was seen as a watershed moment in the movement for equality for LGBTQ+ Americans. In the years since, more people openly identify as LGBTQ+: a record 5.6% of American adults in 2021, according to one Gallup survey.
NKM999 // Shutterstock
Dying on your birthday
It seems like you should have a 1 in 365—or 366 on a leap year—chance of dying on any particular day of the year. An economist at the University of Chicago discovered this isn’t the case. You’re 6.7% more likely to die on your birthday, a rate that increases for young people or when birthdays fall on weekends.
Being born with extra fingers or toes
Being born with extra fingers and toes results from a medical condition known as polydactyly, which affects 1 in every 500 to 1,000 births in the United States. But don’t worry if it happens to you or your child, as most cases are easily fixed with surgery. People usually end up with one extra finger or toe, but the world record is held by a child born in 2010 in India with 14 fingers and 20 toes.
vchal // Shutterstock
Being involved in a mass shooting
Firearms are the leading cause of death in the U.S., but mass shootings account for a relatively small fraction of those deaths. The average American has a 1 in 11,125 chance of dying in a mass shooting over the course of their life.
Minh Hoang // Flickr
Catching a Shiny Pokemon
Shiny Pokemon are no different than normal Pokemon, except they have a different color scheme and are incredibly rare. They appeared in the video game franchise with Pokemon Gold and Pokemon Silver, where players had a 1 in 8,192 chance of finding one. The Pokemon game for Nintendo Switch eases those odds to 1 in 341 after players catch a certain number of a specific species, or 1 in 4,096 without the combo.
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That your birth control fails
No birth control is 100% effective, but some are more successful at preventing pregnancy than others. Latex condoms fail 13% of the time, prescription birth control pills fail 7% of the time, and implants like intrauterine devices (IUDs) fail 0.1-0.8% of the time. The right choice depends on the person in question and should always be discussed with your doctor.
Keith Allison // Wikimedia Commons
Catching a foul ball
Catching a foul ball during a professional baseball game is any fan’s dream. The odds of it happening aren’t too terrible, depending on obvious factors like where you’re sitting and the pitcher-batter matchup. All in all, there’s around a 1 in 835 chance of snagging a ball while rooting for your team. The odds of catching two in a row are closer to 1 in 1 billion.
Being dealt a royal flush
The best hand in poker, a royal flush consists of a 10, jack, queen, king, and ace of the same suit in your hand. There’s only a 0.00015% chance of being dealt this and only four possibilities—one of each suit—out of 2.6 million possible poker hands in a normal five-card game.
Bychykhin Olexandr // Shutterstock
Being born on leap day
People born on Feb. 29, the extra day added to the calendar every four years to keep calendars matching up with the rotation of the sun, are the subject of fascination and constant jokes about how they only have a birthday every four years. The chances of any person being born on that day are 1 in 1,461, the number of days in four years plus one.
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Keeping your wisdom teeth
Getting your wisdom teeth removed has become an adolescent rite of passage, with about 10 million of them removed every year. Despite debates over the necessity of having surgery before the teeth cause problems, around 85% of people who have wisdom teeth—some people are born without them—still get them removed.
That there is alien life
There may be about a 45% chance of there being alien life, according to one study released in 2020 that estimated the odds of other-planetary life and intelligence. The findings were based on a series of inferences adding up to what’s called Bayesian analysis.
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freestocks.org // Flickr
Giving birth on your due date
Due dates are an inexact science, usually calculated based on a rule devised in the 19th century. Only around 4% of babies are born on their due dates, while 80% are born sometime in the two weeks before or after. Babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are considered premature and can suffer from physical disability or developmental delays. Around 15 million premature babies are born annually.
Mark Warner // Flickr
Creating a perfect March Madness bracket
Every year, billionaire Warren Buffett offers $1 million per year for life to any employee at his company who fills out a perfect bracket for the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament. The exact odds of correctly predicting the outcome of all the match-ups depend on who you ask: Forbes places it at 1 in 9.2 quintillion, while FiveThirtyEight pegged the 2015 odds at 1 in 1.6 billion. Either way, Buffett won’t have to pay a grand prize winner for the foreseeable future.
nursingschoolsnearme.com/ // Flickr
This would be the probability that started it all, but what are the chances of any one human existing at all? While they’re not infinitely small, the odds are not stacked in your favor. Your parents had to meet, you had to be conceived from a specific sperm and egg, you had to be born, and your ancestors had to do the same thing for generations before you or your parents were born.
After all that, you had around a 1 in 10 to the power of 2,685,000 chance, but if you’re reading this, you beat those tough odds, so congratulations are in order.
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