Luck is not a magical ability

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Richard Wiseman has found that luck is not a magical ability — nor is it simply the result of random chance:

Nor are people born lucky or unlucky. Instead, although lucky and unlucky people have almost no insight into the real causes of their good and bad luck, their thoughts and behavior are responsible for much of their fortune. My research revealed that lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

Take the case of chance opportunities. Lucky people consistently encounter such opportunities whereas unlucky people do not. I carried out a very simple experiment to discover whether this was due to differences in their ability to spot such opportunities. I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message “Stop counting — There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was over two inches high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it. Just for fun, I placed a second large message half way through the newspaper. This one announced: “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs. Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense and anxious than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected. In one experiment, people were asked to watch a moving dot in the center of a computer screen. Without warning, large dots would occasionally be flashed at the edges of the screen. Nearly all participants noticed these large dots. The experiment was then repeated with a second group of people, who were offered a large financial reward for accurately watching the center dot. This time, people were far more anxious about the whole situation. They became very focused on the center dot and over a third of them missed the large dots when they appeared on the screen.

The harder they looked, the less they saw. And so it is with luck — unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain type of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.

But this is only part of the story when it comes to chance opportunities. Many of my lucky participants went to considerable lengths to introduce variety and change into their lives. Before making an important decision, one lucky participant would constantly alter his route to work. Another person described a special technique that he had developed to force him to meet different types of people. He had noticed that whenever he went to a party, he tended to talk to the same type of people. To help disrupt this routine, and make life more fun, he thinks of a color before he arrives at the party and then chooses to only speak to people wearing that color of clothing at the party! At some parties he only spoke to women in red, at another he chatted exclusively to men in black.


  1. Ross says:

    Wiseman’s take is integrative, synthetic and helpful, but also occasionally statistically wobbly.

    Beware the survivorship/selection bias, the subjective interpretation, and misunderstanding that the recommended ‘lucky’ practices, while they can ‘work’, are simply common sense behaviors to increase one’s connections (and therefore chances at ‘lucky’ inter, ramp up one’s perserverance/persistance, to look for and leverage positive interpretations of events. (e.g. “I got shot in arm during robbery”. Unlucky take: “Why did I have to get shot? Ouch, it hurts” Lucky take: “I could have died. I am so fortunate”) and since “believing is seeing” to engage in positive imagery. Etc.

    Wiseman’s books are fun, super easy to read and profitably skimmable. Recommended.

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