Police Psychology: Randomness in Life
by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
In police psychology, as well at other divisions within psychology, we are always looking for innovative ways to make a point to our therapy clients that is not only memorable, but can be applied to their lives across numerous situations. One of my favorites uses the coin toss research that is probably as old as psychology itself, or perhaps as old as mathematical probability at least. I remember reading it as an undergraduate, but didn’t think much of it at the time. Since then, the simplicity of the research has amazed me.
The researchers tossed a coin in the air and record whether the outcome is head or tails. The research team tossed the coins 100 times, 1000 times and even 10,000 times. At the higher numbers, a strange phenomenon occurred.
What they found was there were runs of heads and tails in a row — over thirty of one side or another. Now we all expect there to be a 50/50 distribution of heads to tails, but what was not expected was one side showing up 38 times in a row. It’s like in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead where the play opens with 100 coin tosses of heads to show that time is not moving for the main characters until the play starts. Sometimes time stops in real life too.
The Ups and Downs in Life
The gambler knows that you get streaks in a game and you must play the good streaks and survive the bad streaks. In life also, you gets runs of good luck and runs of bad luck. You truly have to ride the good streak but survive the bad streaks. That is the random nature of the world. Survival means we cut our resources to the minimum, expend less energy and just recognize time will heal slowly. Cut your emotional losses. When you are doing well, ride it for all its worth because truly getting ahead in life means riding a good streak as well.
I can remember one of the bad streaks in my life. In 1994, my house burned down in June, my pool caved in the next month. I was robbed in August in the trailer I was staying in on my lawn, and at a conference meeting that October, I found out my trailer had completed flooded out because the water pipe had broken while I was away. The water had gotten to the level of the window before my next door neighbor had discovered it oozing out the bottom of the trailer. I knew my luck would turn around eventually and it did the next year. My First book was picked up by a publisher and published. Sometimes, this is something that your patients need to hear.
Removing Stress by Accepting the Randomness
I start by telling them about the coin toss story, and the numbers of heads and tails in a row. I talk about random events having a tendency to appear not so random at times. I teach them survival mode, the value of patience and the passage of time. Then we talk about recognizing when a good streak is starting. It helps them accept what randomness means, and it helps them through the low spots in life. Normally the low spots can give an alcoholic an excuse to drink, or a depressed person reason to feel even more hopeless, or a suicidal person a reason to quit. But you need to ignore these voices telling you to give up, and know your life will turn around if you just wait. Forewarning is forearming and the person who is prepared has a better chance at a stable life. In fact, some times the stress of the bad streak can actually make you stronger!
Give it a shot if someone is in a “run of bad luck.” You’ll find in maybe a month, two months or ten months later it will get quoted back to you, of course, without giving you the reference. Then you know you have been successful in changing a life.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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