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The luck factor


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The luck factor

  1. 1. A ten-year scientific study into the nature of luck has revealed that, to a large ex-tent, people make their own good and bad fortune. The results also show that it ispossible to enhance the amount of luck that people encounter in their lives. a friend. Just by chance, Bandura and his friendBarnett Helzberg Jr. is a lucky man. By 1994 he found themselves playing behind two attractive fe-had built up a chain of highly successful jewelry male golfers, and soon joined them as a foursome.stores with an annual revenue of around $300 mil- After the game, Bandura arranged to meet up withlion. One day he was walking past the Plaza Hotel one of the women again, and eventually ended upin New York when he heard a woman call out, “Mr. marrying her. A chance meeting on a golf courseBuffett” to the man next to him. Helzberg won- altered his entire life.dered whether the man might be Warren Buffett –one of the most successful investors in America. In short, lucky events exert a dramatic influenceHelzberg had never met Buffett, but had read about over our lives. Luck has the power to transform thethe financial criteria that Buffett used when buying improbable into the possible, to make the differencea company. Helzberg had recently turned sixty, was between life and death, reward and ruin, happinessthinking of selling his company, and realized that and despair.his might be the type of company that would inter-est Buffett. Helzberg seized the opportunity,walked over to the stranger and introduced himself. THE POWER OF SUPERSTITIONThe man did indeed turn out to be Warren Buffett, People have searched for an effective way of im-and the chance meeting proved highly fortuitous proving the good fortune in their lives for manybecause about a year later Buffett agreed to buy centuries. Lucky charms, amulets, and talismansHelzberg’s chain of stores. And all because Helz- have been found in virtually all civilizationsberg just happened to be walking by as a woman throughout recorded history. Touching (“knockingcalled out Buffett’s name on a street corner in New on”) wood dates back to pagan rituals that were de-York. signed to elicit the help of benign and powerful tree gods. The number thirteen is seen as unlucky be-Helzberg’s story illustrates the effect of luck in cause there were thirteen people at Christs last sup-business, but good fortune also plays a vital role in per. When a ladder is propped up against a wall itall aspects of our lives. Stanford psychologist Al- forms a natural triangle which used to be seen asfred Bandura has discussed the impact of chance symbolic of the Holy Trinity. To walk under theencounters and luck on people’s personal lives. ladder would break the Trinity and therefore bringBandura noted both the importance and prevalence ill fortune.of such encounters, writing that “some of the mostimportant determinants of life paths often arise Many of these beliefs and behaviors are still withthrough the most trivial of circumstances.” He sup- us. In 1996, the Gallup Organization asked 1,000ports his case with several telling examples, one of Americans whether they were superstitious. Fiftywhich was drawn from his life. As a graduate stu- three percent of people said that they were at least adent, Bandura became bored with a reading assign- little superstitious, and 25 percent admitted to beingment and so decided to visit the local golf links with somewhat or very superstitious. Another survey 1 of 5
  2. 2. revealed that 72 percent of the public said that they A few years ago I decided to put the power of luckypossessed at least one good luck charm. Supersti- charms to the test by empirically evaluating the ac-tious beliefs and behaviors have been passed down tual effect that they have on people’s luck, lives,from generation to generation. Our parents told us and happiness. I asked a group of volunteers toabout them and we will pass them on to our chil- complete various standardized questionnaires meas-dren. But why do they persist? I believe that the uring their levels of life satisfaction, happiness, andanswer lies in the power of luck. Throughout his- luck. Next, they were asked to carry a lucky charmtory, people have recognized that good and bad luck with them and to monitor the effect that it had oncan transform lives. A few seconds of ill fortune their lives. The charms had been purchased from acan lay waste years of striving, and moments of New Age center and promised to enhance good for-good luck can save an enormous amount of hard tune, wealth, and happiness. After a few weekswork. Superstition represents people’s attempts to everyone in the group was asked to indicate the ef-control and enhance this most elusive of factors. fect that the charms had had on their lives. Overall,And the enduring nature of these superstitions be- there was absolutely no effect in terms of how satis- fied they were with their lives, how happy they were, or how lucky they felt. Superstition comes from a time when people Interestingly, been especially unlucky, that they had a few participants thought thought that luck was a strange force that and seemed somewhat relieved that they could only be controlled by magical rituals could now return the charms. and bizarre behaviors.liefs and behaviors reflects the extent of people’s THE LUCK PROJECTdesire to find ways of increasing their good luck. Inshort, superstitions were created, and have survived, Superstition doesn’t work because it is based onbecause they promise that most elusive of holy outdated and incorrect thinking. It comes from agrails – a way of enhancing good fortune. time when people thought that luck was a strange force that could only be controlled by magical ritu- als and bizarre behaviors.TESTING SUPERSTITIONThere is just one problem. Superstition doesn’t Ten years ago I decided to take a more scientificwork. Several researchers have also tested the va- investigation into the concept of luck. I decidedlidity of these age-old beliefs and found them want- that the best method was to examine why some peo-ing. My favorite experiment into the topic was a ple are consistently lucky whilst others encounterrather strange study conducted by high school stu- little but ill fortune. In short, why some peopledent (and member of the New York Skeptics) Mark seem to live charmed lives full of lucky breaks andLevin. In some countries, a black cat crossing your chance encounters, while others experience one dis-path is seen as lucky, in other countries it is seen as aster after another.unlucky. Levin wanted to discover whether peo-ple’s luck really changed when a black cat crossed I placed advertisements in national newspapers andtheir path. To find out, he asked two people to try magazines, asking for people who considered them-their luck at a simple coin tossing game. Next, a selves exceptionally lucky or unlucky to contact cat was encouraged to walk across their path, Over the years, 400 extraordinary men and womenand the participants then played the coin tossing have volunteered to participate in my research; thegame a second time. As a “control” condition, youngest eighteen, a student, the oldest eighty-four,Levin also repeated the experiment using a white, a retired accountant. They were drawn from allrather than a black, cat. After much coin tossing walks of life – businessmen, factory workers, teach-and cat crossing, Levin concluded that neither the ers, housewives, doctors, secretaries, and salespeo-black or white cat had any effect on participants’ ple. All were kind enough to let me put their livesluck. Also, skeptics have regularly staged events in and minds under the microscope.which they have broken well-known superstitions,such as walking under ladders and smashing mir-rors – all have survived the ordeals intact. 2 of 5
  3. 3. Jessica, a forty-two-year-old forensic scientist, is CHANCE OPPORTUNITIEStypical of lucky people in the group. She is cur-rently in a long-term relationship with a man who Take the case of chance opportunities. Lucky peo-she met completely by chance at a dinner party. In ple consistently encounter such opportunitiesfact, good fortune has helped her achieve many of whereas unlucky people do not. I carried out a veryher lifelong ambitions. As she once explained to simple experiment to discover whether this was dueme, “I have my dream job, two wonderful children, to differences in their ability to spot such opportuni-and a great guy that I love very much. It’s amazing, ties. I gave both lucky and unlucky people a news-when I look back at my life I realize that I have paper, and asked them to look through it and tell mebeen lucky in just about every area.” In contrast, how many photographs were inside. On average,the unlucky participants have not been so fortunate. the unlucky people took about two minutes to countPatricia, twenty-seven, has experienced bad luck the photographs whereas the lucky people took justthroughout much of her life. A few years ago, she seconds. Why? Because the second page of thestarted to work as cabin crew for an airline, and newspaper contained the message “Stop counting –quickly gained a reputation as being accident-prone There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Thisand a bad omen. One of her first flights had to message took up half of the page and was written inmake an unplanned stop-over because some passen- type that was over two inches high. It was staringgers had become drunk and abusive. Another of everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky peoplePatricia’s flights was struck by lightning, and just tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spotweeks later a third flight was forced it. Just for fun, I placed a second large message halfto make an emergency landing.Patricia was also convinced that herill fortune could be transferred to Lucky people generate their own good fortuneothers and so never wished people via four basic principles. They are skilled atgood luck, because this had caused creating and noticing chance opportunities,them to fail important interviews and make lucky decisions by listening to theirexams. She is also unlucky in love intuition, create self-fulfilling prohesiesand has staggered from one brokenrelationship to the next. Patricia via positive expectations, and adopt a resilientnever seems to get any lucky breaks attitude that transforms bad luck into good.and always seems to be in the wrongplace at the wrong time. way through the newspaper. This one announced:Over the years I have interviewed these volunteers, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seenasked them to complete diaries, personality ques- this and win $250.” Again, the unlucky peopletionnaires, and intelligence tests, and invited them missed the opportunity because they were still tooto my laboratory to participate in experiments. The busy looking for photographs.findings have revealed that luck is not a magicalability or the result of random chance. Nor are peo- Personality tests revealed that unlucky people areple born lucky or unlucky. Instead, although lucky generally much more tense and anxious than luckyand unlucky people have almost no insight into the people, and research has shown that anxiety disruptsreal causes of their good and bad luck, their people’s ability to notice the unexpected. In onethoughts and behavior are responsible for much of experiment, people were asked to watch a movingtheir fortune. dot in the center of a computer screen. Without warning, large dots would occasionally be flashed atMy research revealed that lucky people generate the edges of the screen. Nearly all participants no-their own good fortune via four basic principles. ticed these large dots. The experiment was thenThey are skilled at creating and noticing chance op- repeated with a second group of people, who wereportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to offered a large financial reward for accuratelytheir intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via watching the center dot. This time, people were farpositive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude more anxious about the whole situation. They be-that transforms bad luck into good. came very focused on the center dot and over a third of them missed the large dots when they appeared on the screen. 3 of 5
  4. 4. The harder they looked, the less they saw. And so it DEALING WITH BAD LUCKis with luck – unlucky people miss chance opportu-nities because they are too focused on looking for But a lucky life is not just about creating and notic-something else. They go to parties intent on finding ing chance opportunities. Another important princi-their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to ple revolved around the way in which lucky andmake good friends. They look through newspapers unlucky people dealt with the ill fortune in theirdetermined to find certain type of job advertise- lives. Imagine being chosen to represent your coun-ments and as a result miss other types of jobs. try in the Olympic games. You compete in theLucky people are more relaxed and open, and there- games, do very well, and win a bronze medal. Howfore see what is there rather than just what they are happy do you think that would feel? Most of uslooking for. would, I suspect, be overjoyed and proud of our achievement. Now imagine turning the clock backBut this is only part of the story when it comes to and competing at the same Olympic games a secondchance opportunities. Many of my lucky partici- time. This time you do even better and win a silverpants went to considerable lengths to introduce vari- medal. How happy do you think you would feelety and change into their lives. Before making an now? Most of us think that we would feel happierimportant decision, one lucky participant would after winning the silver medal than the bronze. Thisconstantly alter his route to work. Another person is not surprising. After all, the medals are a reflec-described a special technique that he had developed tion of our performance, and the silver medal indi-to force him to meet different types of people. He cates a better performance than a bronze medal.had noticed that whenever he went to a party, hetended to talk to the same type of people. To help But research suggests that athletes who win bronzedisrupt this routine, and make life more fun, he medals are actually happier than those who win sil-thinks of a color before he arrives at the party and ver medals. And the reason for this has to do withthen chooses to only speak to people wearing that the way in which the athletes think about their per-color of clothing at the party! At some parties he formance. The silver medalists focus on the notiononly spoke to women in red, at another he chatted that if they had performed slightly better, then theyexclusively to men in black. would have perhaps won a gold medal. In contrast, the bronze medalists focus on the thought that ifAlthough it may seem strange, under certain cir- they had performed slightly worse, then they would-cumstances, this type of behavior will actually in- n’t have won anything at all. Psychologists refer tocrease the amount of chance opportunities in peo- our ability to imagine what might have happened,ple’s lives. Imagine living in the center of a large rather than what actually did happen, as “counter-apple orchard. Each day you have to venture into factual.”the orchard and collect a large basket of apples.The first few times it won’t matter where you de- I wondered whether lucky people might be usingcide to visit. All parts of the orchard will have ap- counter-factual thinking to soften the emotional im-ples and so you will be able to find them wherever pact of the ill fortune that they experienced in theiryou go. But as time goes on it will become more lives. To find out, I decided to present lucky andand more difficult to find apples in the places that unlucky people with some unlucky scenarios andyou have visited before. And the more you return to see how they reacted. I asked lucky and unluckythe same locations, the harder it will be to find ap- people to imagine that they were waiting to beples there. But if you decide to always go to parts served in a bank. Suddenly, an armed robber entersof the orchard that you have never visited before, or the bank, fires a shot, and the bullet hits them in theeven randomly decide where to go, your chances of arm. Would this event be lucky or unlucky?finding apples will be dramatically increased. And Unlucky people tended to say that this would beit is exactly the same with luck. It is easy for people enormously unlucky and it would be just their badto exhaust the opportunities in their life. Keep on luck to be in the bank during the robbery. In con-talking to the same people in the same way. Keep trast, lucky people viewed the scenario as being fartaking the same route to and from work. Keep go- luckier, and often spontaneously commented oning to the same places on vacation. But new or how the situation could have been far worse. Aseven random experiences introduce the potential for one lucky participant commented, “It’s lucky be-new opportunities. cause you could have been shot in the head – also, 4 of 5
  5. 5. you could sell your story to the newspapers and encounters and job promotions simply throughmake some money.” lucky breaks.The differences between the lucky and unlucky peo- POSITIVE SKEPTICISMple were striking. Lucky people tend to imaginespontaneously how the bad luck they encounter After ten years of scientific research my work hascould have been worse and, in doing so, they feel revealed a radically new way of looking at luck andmuch better about themselves and their lives. This, the vital role that plays in our lives. It demonstratesin turn, helps keep their expectations about the fu- that much of the good and bad fortune we encounterture high, and, increases the likelihood of them con- is a result of our thoughts and behavior. More im-tinuing to live a lucky life. portant, it represents the potential for change, and has produced that most elusive of holy grails – an effective way of increasing the luck people experi-LUCK SCHOOL ence in their daily lives.I wondered whether the principles uncovered duringmy work could be used to increase the amount of The project has also demonstrated how skepticismgood luck that people encounter in their lives. To can play a positive role in people’s lives. The re-find out, I created “luck school” – a series of experi- search is not simply about debunking superstitiousments examining whether people’s luck can be en- thinking and behavior. Instead, it is about encour-hanced by getting them to think and behave like a aging people to move away from a magical way oflucky person. thinking and toward a more rational view of luck. Perhaps most important of all, it is about using sci-The project comprised two main parts. In the first ence and skepticism to increase the level of luck,part I met up with participants on a one-to-one ba- happiness, and success in people’s lives.sis, and asked them to complete standard question-naires measuring their luck and how satisfied they Professor Richard Wisemanwere with six major areas of their life. I then de-scribed the four main principles of luck, explainedhow lucky people used these to create good fortunein their lives, and described simple techniques de-signed to help them think and behave like a luckyperson. For example, as I noted earlier, without re-alizing it, lucky people tend to use various tech-niques to create chance opportunities that surroundthem, how to break daily routines, and also how todeal more effectively with bad luck by imagininghow things could have been worse. I asked my vol-unteers to spend a month carrying out exercises andthen return and describe what had happened.The results were dramatic. Eighty percent of peoplewere now happier, more satisfied with their lives, Richard Wiseman is a psychologist at the Universityand, perhaps most important of all, luckier. of Hertfordshire and a CSICOP fellow. Email: R.Unlucky people had become lucky, and lucky peo- This article is based on hisple had become even luckier. At the start of the ar- new book The Luck Factor, published in April 2003ticle I described the unlucky life of Patricia. She by Talk Books. Web site: one of the first people to take part in LuckSchool. After a few weeks carrying out some sim- SKEPTICAL INQUIRERple exercises, her bad luck had completely vanished. The Magazine For Science And ReasonAt the end of the course, Patricia cheerfully ex- Volume 27, No.3 ~ May/June 2003plained that she felt like a completely different per- She was no longer accident-prone and wasmuch happier with her life. For once, everythingwas working out her way. Other volunteers hadfound romantic partners through chance 5 of 5