I had a statistics professor during my undergrad who used to constantly tap his temple and utter “Columbo logic” followed by a broad gesture with the arms and the phrase “mutually exclusive,” both uttered in a heavy Indian accent. I never learned what he meant by Columbo logic (luckily it wasn’t on the final) but I did master mutually exclusive events.

In mathematics, two events are considered mutually exclusive if they cannot happen at the same time. The main example I use when I teach this to my students is the two sides of a coin. It is impossible for a coin to land on heads AND tails at the same time. Don’t worry, I’m not going to teach you a math lesson; I’ve been doing that all day. It just turns out, that like Venn diagrams and marriage, there is a connection here to the real world. (Side note: If you have kids, please do not tell them that math ever applies to the real world. We math teachers try to keep that a secret. Just kidding 🙂 )

Math is simple and elegant; disjoint sets are easy to recognize and have clear and defined boundaries. Life, on the other hand, is messy and complicated. Mutually exclusive events are all around us, but they are not as simple as heads and tails.

There is a tension that can exist in life when we do not recognize two situations as mutually exclusive and we strive to have both. For example, in my life a clean kitchen and my boyfriend being in town are disjoint. As long as he is here, the kitchen will be messy. If I expect something otherwise, I will only become frustrated. Now, since I love my boyfriend more than I love an empty sink and clean counters (okay, okay, this is true on most days!), I choose to have him around and live with the mess.

We can also use mutually exclusive events to our advantage. For example, I know that it is impossible for me to feel overwhelmed when I am on a hike through the woods. So, if I am overwhelmed and time allows, I strap on my hiking boots.

These are some of the events that are mutually exclusive in my life:

Panic and yoga

A plate of veggie nachos and restraint

Anxiety and a long run

A late night out and a Friday during the school year

How about you? What events are mutually exclusive in your life? Perhaps you could apply some Columbo logic. 🙂

Having been a very big fan of Columbo from a too young age (thanks to my mother), I guess it has to do with the way Columbo always dealt with things on the basis of a hunch and we all know that statistics don’t deal with hunches. I apply the Columbo method too much, I think. 🙂

Ahh…got you. So it’s a gut instinct thing?

Actually, although Columbo always looked for evidence based on his gut instinct, I think maybe it’s more that Columbo deduces ‘who done it’ by looking at parts of testimony and evidence that are mutually exclusive, like if a suspect says he drove for 30 minutes to get somewhere and found a body, immediately called the police and the police arrived almost immmediately, then Columbo feels the car and finds the hood stone cold. The guy couldn’t have just driven there as stated, or the hood would be warm.

This makes sense in my head, apologies if I’m actually just rambling 🙂

Cool. Thanks for explaining:) I finally get it!

You are always interesting and I am old enough to know the show. Loved his quirky way of getting the answers. You are quirky and wise, too!

Thanks! Apparently lots of people understand his reference and I’m too young (sounds weird to say at this point!) to get it. What’s funnier is that I was the oldest one in this class. Every one of us was completely confused by his utterances!

Hello. Discovered that ‘going for walk along the beach promenade’ and ‘stressing (crying) about a few set-backs for the day regarding a way forward’ and also mutually exclusive ……. tried that yesterday after reading your post…… and it works.

Thanks

I am so happy for you! Thank you so much for letting me know 🙂 I hope today is a better day for you.