National Telefilm Associates
“Luck is believing you’re lucky.”
—Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
In 1995, a wounded 35-year-old woman named Anat Ben-Tov gave an interview from her hospital room in Tel Aviv. She had just survived her second bus bombing in less than a year. “I have no luck, or I have all the luck,” she told reporters. “I’m not sure which it is.”
The news story caught the eyes of Norwegian psychologist Karl Halvor Teigen, now an emeritus professor at the University of Oslo. He had been combing through newspapers to glean insights into what people consider lucky and unlucky. Over the following years, he and other psychologists, along with economists and statisticians, would come to understand that while people often think of luck as random chance or a supernatural force, it is better described as subjective interpretation.
“One might ask, do you consider yourself lucky because good things happen to you, or do good things happen to you because you consider yourself lucky?” says David J. Hand, author of The Improbability Principle, emeritus professor of mathematics and a senior research investigator at Imperial College, London.
Psychology studies have found that whether you identify yourself as lucky or unlucky, regardless of your actual lot in life, says a lot about your worldview, well-being, and even brain functions. It turns out that believing you are lucky is a kind of magical thinking—not magical in the sense of Lady Luck or leprechauns. A belief in luck can lead to a virtuous cycle of thought and action. Belief in good luck goes hand in hand with feelings of control, optimism, and low anxiety. If you believe you’re lucky and show up for a date feeling confident, relaxed, and positive, you’ll be more attractive to your date.
Feeling lucky can lead you to work harder and plan better. It can make you more attentive to the unexpected, allowing you to capitalize on opportunities that arise around you. In a study comparing people who consider themselves lucky or unlucky, psychologist Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, author of the 2003 book The Luck Factor, asked subjects to count the pictures in a newspaper. But there was a twist: He put the solution on the second page of the newspaper. “The unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it,” he writes.
One of the easiest measures you can take to improve your luck is to shake things up.
On the other hand, feeling unlucky could lead to a vicious cycle likely to generate unlucky outcomes. Psychologist John Maltby of the University of Leicester hypothesized that beliefs in being unlucky are associated with lower executive functioning—the ability to plan, organize, and attend to tasks or goals. In a 2013 study, he and colleagues found a link between a belief in being unlucky and lower executive function skills like switching between tasks and creative thinking. Then in 2015, he and other colleagues found more electrical activity related to lower executive function in the brains of 10 students who believed themselves very unlucky than in the brains of 10 students who believed themselves very lucky. “People who believe in bad luck didn’t necessarily engage in some of the processes that are needed to bring about positive outcomes,” Maltby says.
He offers a simple example of running out of ink in the middle of a print job. “The lucky person will have got a spare cartridge just in case because they have planned ahead. When the cartridge runs out they’ll say, ‘Oh, aren’t I lucky, I bought one earlier, that’’ fantastic,’ ” Maltby says. “However, the unlucky person won’t have planned ahead, won’t have done the cognitive processes, so when the printer cartridge runs out and they’re left with something to print, they go, ‘Oh, I’m so unlucky.’ ”
If this kind of vicious cycle takes hold, it can make a big difference. Economists Victoria Prowse and David Gill of Purdue University think responses to bad luck might even explain part of the gender gap seen in the workforce. In a lab experiment using a competitive game that involved both skill and luck, they found that women were more discouraged by bad luck than men. After experiencing bad luck, women had a greater tendency to reduce the amount of effort they put into the next round of the competition, even when the game’s stakes were small.
Luck frequently plays a role in careers, Prowse points out. Whether you get a job could depend on how much time a manager has to look at resumes, or whether she likes a color you wear to the interview. Companies often hold competitions that pit employees such as salespeople against each other. “Even a small reduction in the effort of a woman after one interaction, where she gets unlucky, could potentially mean you miss the opportunity of getting promoted and getting to the next level, which has all sorts of future repercussions,” she says. “It would be dangerous to dismiss these small differences as something that couldn’t potentially accumulate to something we really care about.”
While personality and gender seem to play a role, random events could also kick-start a virtuous lucky cycle or a vicious unlucky cycle. Economist Alan Kirman of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris realized this could be the case when he worked in an office with relatively few parking places nearby. One guy on his team always seemed to get lucky with parking spots close to the office, while another always had to park far away and walk. To figure out why, the team created a simple game-theory model to simulate the situation. It revealed that if would-be parkers happened to find spots near work early on, they continued to search in a narrow radius in the following days. If they didn’t find spots near work early on, they began to search in a wider radius. Guess who had lucky streaks when it came to finding spots near work? The ones who were actually looking for them…