Those Fortune Cookie 'Lucky Numbers'? They're Not Unlucky

FiveThirtyEight's Walt Hickey analyzed 1,000-plus cookies and made some surprising finds
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 4, 2017 12:49 PM CDT
Data Wonk Holes Up With 1K Fortune Cookies for Science
How lucky (or forward-looking) are fortune cookies?   (AP Photo/Fortune Cookie Advertising)

Imagine you're so obsessed with fortune cookies, and the destinies they claim to foretell, that you order more than 1,000 of them to "unlock their mysteries." That's exactly what data journalist Walt Hickey did for, picking through the prognostications (676 unique ones among his 1,035-cookie sample), the "lucky numbers" included on each slip of paper, and even the Mandarin vocab printed on the reverse sides. Despite his inventory being 15 cookies short of what he ordered (did anyone really think someone in love with data wouldn't count every single cookie?), he made some fascinating and surprising finds. Here, a sample:

  • Those lucky numbers aren't not lucky. Hickey calls this discovery "weird as hell," but he admits that, after comparing the numbers on the fortunes to winning Powerball numbers over a nearly 20-year stretch, the value of playing the fortunes' numbers over that time period would have left a hypothetic gambler with a slight profit (just under $175), while playing random numbers would leave that same gambler with a $2,540 deficit. He's got some common-sense explanations for why that may be.
  • What do the fortunes really tell us? They don't so much tell our fortunes as appeal to our egos and sense of good citizenship, apparently. Only 22.3% of the themes enclosed within the cookies actually dabbled in prophesy: The vast majority (52.9%) included the word "you" and spit out praise or criticism of one's strengths and weaknesses, while others included basic life advice and well-worn wisdom like "Do onto others as you wish others do onto you." Hickey even built his own online bot to see what randomly generated fortunes it would churn out. Check it out here.
Break open the steamed dumplings and read more on what the FiveThirtyEight analysis turned up. (More fortune cookie stories.)

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