Why Some People Are Lucky

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Watch this video. (It’s a Java applet.) When viewing the video, try to count the total number of times that the people wearing white pass the basketball. Do not count the passes made by the people wearing black.

Watch the video. I’ll wait.

I’ve commented on that video before, but it turns out that it’s also a favorite of Richard Wiseman, who recently explained to Forbes
why some people are lucky:

The human brain is amazingly good at detecting what it wants to find. When you are hungry, your brain focuses on finding food. When you are thirsty, it looks for liquid. The problem is, your brain can become so focused on seeing what it expects to see, it misses things that are obvious but unexpected. Lucky people tend to have a somewhat relaxed view of life. They are less concerned with mundane details and more prone to look at the bigger picture. Ironically, by trying less, they see more.

Exactly the same principle applies to the opportunities that bombard us in everyday life. In another experiment, I gave some volunteers a newspaper and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. What I didn’t tell them was that halfway through the newspaper I had placed an unexpected opportunity. This “opportunity” took up half a page and announced, in huge type, “Win £100 by telling the experimenter you have seen this.” The unlucky people tended to be so focused on counting the photographs they failed to notice the opportunity. In contrast, the lucky people were more relaxed, saw the bigger picture and so spotted a chance to win £100.

There’s more. “Lucky people possess a whole host of opportunity-attracting traits.”

You will quickly exhaust your potential opportunities if you keep talking to the same people, taking the same route to and from work and going to the same places on holiday. But introducing new or random experiences is like visiting a new part of the orchard–suddenly you are surrounded by hundreds of apples.

Lucky people had developed various interesting ways of introducing such variety. One noticed that whenever he went to a party, he tended to talk to the same type of people. To help disrupt this routine, he randomly chose a color before arriving at the party, and then only spoke to people wearing that color of clothing at the party.

Yet another trait:

Lucky people experience a large number of seemingly chance encounters. They bump into someone at a party, discover that they know people in common, and from these connections end up getting married or doing business together. Or when they need something, they always seem to know someone who knows someone who can solve their problem.

I wondered if these “small world” experiences were due to knowing a large number of people, and being tied into more elaborate social networks than most. To discover if this was the case and quantify the nature of these networks, I employed a method described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. To explore the notion of social connectivity, Gladwell carried out an informal study in which he presented people with a list of surnames and asked them to indicate if they knew people with that surname. Similarly, I asked hundreds of lucky and unlucky people to look at a list of 15 common surnames, and indicate if they were on first-name terms with at least one person with each surname.

The results were dramatic and demonstrated the huge relationship between luck and social connectivity. Almost 50% of lucky people ticked eight or more of the names, compared with just 25% of unlucky people. Further work has shown lucky people tend to be extroverts who both meet a large number of people and keep in contact with them. The building and maintaining of such social networks significantly increases the likelihood of having a “lucky” chance encounter.

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