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The Science Of “Luck”

Are some people just lucky, or do they make their own good or bad fortune?

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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Broken mirror in the background, in the foreground are the words "The science of luck"

Or is luck more psychology and sociology than superstition?

Image credit: James Rodrigues, modified from iStock

This article first appeared in Issue 12 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.

Luck, a phenomenon that has fascinated and perplexed humans since time immemorial, has often been attributed to chance, fate, or supernatural forces. But is there more to this supposed phenomenon than mere chance and happenstance? Could there in fact be a rational and empirical explanation hiding behind the veil of mystery – in short, is there a science to “luck”?

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Supernatural luck

Throughout history, humans have experimented with various ways to promote good fortune and, more importantly, to avoid disasters. Some common examples of fostering luck include carrying lucky charms, making wishes on stray eyelashes, or blowing out candles on a birthday cake, while actions taken to avoid bad luck include knocking on wood and throwing salt over a shoulder.

In addition, some people will avoid circumstances that bring bad luck, such as walking under ladders or having anything to do with the number 13. Perhaps you have a special ritual of your own that you feel offers some protection from bad luck or encourages success in your life. If you do, you are not alone, and research suggests that such superstitions may serve a psychological purpose.

Investigations into the role superstitions play in our lives have found that they often stem from the assumption that unrelated events and actions are somehow connected – but they are most likely performed to facilitate goal achievement.

Some scientists believe superstitious behaviors may serve an evolutionary role.

For example, a person wears a particular pair of underwear the day they performed well in a game, so now they wear them to every game and maybe don’t even wash them (apparently this is a thing). In this regard, the act of wearing the same underwear is an attempt to control fate and prolong a winning streak (though there is likely only one type of “streak” visible in these garments).

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But does this type of superstitious thinking help? Well, it’s unclear. In 2010, researchers observed students putting a golf ball. Half of the participants were told the ball was “lucky”. Those who thought they had the auspicious ball were better at putting than those who were told they had a regular, non-lucky one.

This study has been celebrated in the media, but unfortunately, attempts to replicate its results have failed. Nevertheless, research has found that activating a superstitious belief can boost confidence and thus enhance performance.

Similarly, some scientists believe superstitious behaviors may serve an evolutionary role as well, as humans are not the only superstitious creatures out there. In fact, animals that exhibit superstitious behaviors also fail to reject them in the face of contradictory evidence.

Explanations for how these behaviors work, especially as many are maladaptive, have led scientists to suggest that perhaps the behavior serves as a kind of placebo or may foster social bonding. Alternatively, the behavior could have had adaptive purposes in the past but has since lost its relevance.

Serendipity 

Luck has many different meanings, and for some, there is a difference between “luck” and “serendipity”. The former could be regarded as something that is out of an individual’s control and just occurs whether you like it or not, whereas the latter can be influenced, at least to a certain extent.

Lucky people demonstrate four principles that seem to enhance their fortunes.

Over the last decade, an increasing number of researchers from different disciplines have examined serendipity – the phenomenon of stumbling upon or accidentally encountering something beneficial without explicitly seeking it – and how to promote it.

In one study, creative professionals were asked how they increased their chances of serendipitous encounters. The results showed that these participants varied their routines, worked in different locations, were observant, and made changes in their workplaces that allowed them to avoid getting stuck in the same patterns.

But for a chance encounter to be truly serendipitous, there also has to be an “aha” moment, a moment of insight, that helps make it meaningful. Indeed, the history of science is very much made up of moments of realization accompanied by chance discoveries: a phenomenon that is equally as important for fostering creativity as well.

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Now, information scientists have started to design digital tools that capitalize on these strategies to not only facilitate potential serendipity but to help individuals adopt the strategies to encounter them more often.  

The lucky mindset – lucky people

Some people are just luckier than others, right? Well, this may be an outcome of their thinking and attitude, rather than a particular aspect of their being. According to Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, England, who has explored factors that make a person lucky or unlucky for the last few decades, lucky people demonstrate four principles that seem to enhance their fortunes.

The first is openness to opportunities. Lucky people, Wiseman writes, are “skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities”, which they achieve by “networking, adopting a relaxed attitude to life, and by being open to new experiences”.

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Luck, how we perceive it, who is thought to have it, and the extent to which we believe random events impact our lives, have real-world consequences.

Lucky people also show an aptitude for listening to and trusting their gut and intuition. They enhance this intuition, he claims, by “meditating and clearing their mind of other thoughts”.

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Another factor that lucky people tend to exhibit is an optimistic belief in the future. “These expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies,” Wiseman argues, “by helping lucky people persist in the face of failure, and shape their interactions with others in a positive way.” Finally, lucky people turn bad luck into good by spontaneously imagining how things could have been worse and then taking control of the situation.

More than a game of chance?

The studies on luck that have been discussed so far have generally focused on “luck” as a thing that can be enhanced or influenced, but the word itself is not neutral and should not be seen as just relating to chance or quirky psychology. Luck, how we perceive it, who is thought to have it, and the extent to which we believe random events impact our lives, have real-world consequences.

In fact, several popular books on the subject published in the last decade have stressed how “luck” is an important factor that serves as a foil against rigid meritocratic arguments that are often raised to dismiss growing inequality in the United States, the UK, and many other Western countries.

Your chance of becoming a CEO may be influenced by your name and the month you were born.

Rather than relying on ideas about how “luck” is self-generating – “you make your own luck” or “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – we can ask more piercing questions about how some of society’s most successful people may owe more to chance – the circumstances of their birth, parental income, demographic and so on – than to their self-reported explanation for their achievements. In this regard, luck is very “real” and has significant impact on people’s lives.   

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For example, recent research has shown that differences in income for people across the world can, at least in part, be explained by the fluke of where they live and the income distribution in that country. Your chance of becoming a CEO may be influenced by your name and the month you were born. Those with surnames that appear earlier in the alphabet are more likely to get tenured positions in academic departments, and women who have more masculine-sounding names are more likely to achieve well in legal roles.

Meritocratic strategies are based on the idea that rewards and honors go to the most deserving, but these few examples, and there are many more out there, undermine this view. Rather than being truly based on a strategy that favors the worthy, meritocracies miss the substantial role luck plays and ultimately adds to unfairness and tend to reward those who are already well rewarded.

So while it may not be worth worrying too much about breaking a mirror or seeing a black cat, luck does play a role in our lives and the more we understand it, the better equipped we are to not only maximize our own, but to think about how to create a fairer society as well.

CURIOUS magazine is a digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 15 is out now.


ARTICLE POSTED IN

humansHumanshumanspsychology
  • tag
  • psychology,

  • behavior,

  • luck,

  • superstition,

  • sociology,

  • inequality

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