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Science Shows That Luck Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

How lucky we feel has a big impact on how lucky we actually are.


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Optimists are the lucky ones. Photo from Reuters/Phil Noble.

You’re so lucky! How do I know? Because, to name just a few factors, you’re literate, can access the internet, and have great taste (you’re reading this story, after all). And social scientists would advise against you arguing otherwise—because how lucky we feel influences our future fortunes.

That is to say, we’re only as lucky as we think we are, and luck begets luck. This makes optimists the luckiest people of all, according to Bloomsberg University philosophy professor Steven Hales, who writes in Aeon, “Luck might not be a genuine quality of the world at all…Luck judgments are a matter of perspective.”

The Lucky Ones

In a study to be published in the journal Philosophical Psychology, Hales and experimental psychologist Jennifer Johnson tested their hypothesis that optimists are more likely to see other people’s experiences as lucky, while pessimists focus on misfortune in the same set of facts. They used real-life stories of “ambiguous luck”—for example, a Japanese man who survived the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, practically unscathed, and lived a long life, and an American soldier who had a rocket-propelled grenade, which did not explode, lodged in his abdomen. Both men survived horrific experiences, which makes them lucky—unless you think that the fact that bad things happened to them at all makes them unlucky.

To assess the relationship between personality traits and perceptions of fortune, Hales and Johnson gave study participants a commonly-used psychological assessment—the Life Orientation Test. With this, the researchers determined the extent to which subjects were optimists or pessimists. Next, study subjects rated the luck of people in ambiguous real-life stories as unlucky, somewhat unlucky, somewhat lucky, or lucky.

The researchers found “a significant positive correlation” between subjects’ level of optimism and how lucky they thought others were. “One of the things this means is that the more optimistic you are, the more you think others are lucky. If you are more of a pessimist, you’re likelier to see others as suffering bad luck,” Hales writes.

Framing Fortune

But the extent of our optimism isn’t the only thing that influences how we evaluate luckiness. The language that’s used to frame a story also influences the way we perceive events.

For example, another Hales and Johnson experiment asked study subjects to read a set of identical facts about other people, presented in a positive or negative light. In one vignette, a woman got five out of six winning lottery numbers. But two versions of her tale were told. In one, she considers herself lucky for coming close. In the other, she curses her perpetual bad luck for always falling short of a win. The different frames for the same facts “strikingly”  influenced how other people perceived her fortune, according to the study. Hales argues in Aeon that these experiments show that judgments about luck are inconsistent and changeable, “the predictable result of framing effects and idiosyncratic personality traits.”

Happy Accidents

These perceptions of fortune matter not just because it’s more fun to feel lucky than cursed. Recognizing the role that good fortune—say, being born into a well-off family—plays in successes means that we’re more likely to work to ensure opportunities for others, too, via social programs, for example. That’s what former US president Barack Obama was getting at when he noted, “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Obama was pointing to the ways that government and social support enables people to achieve their goals. “If you were successful,” he said, “somebody along the line gave you some help.”

Because American culture prizes the story of the individual who picks themselves up by their bootstraps, some bristled at Obama’s assertion. Yet effort and talent are only part of any success story. And refuting that fact is why some feel little obligation to give back, to spread the wealth when it comes to opportunity.

That’s in keeping with the research of Cornell University economics professor Robert Frank. “A growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited,” Frank writes in The Atlantic. “It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.”

Frank explains in Quartz that most people mistakenly believe their success is the inevitable result of hard work or personal qualities, ignoring the fact that they’ve made a lucky draw in a numbers game. But, he argues, “even in the most competitive arenas, it is almost impossible to make it to the top without having also enjoyed at least a bit of good fortune along the way. And as luck would have it, acknowledging that simple fact may actually make us more likely to succeed.”

Again, perception matters. Frank’s experiments have shown that people who acknowledge luck as an element of their success are more attractive to others. They’re well-liked and more likely to get hired because they make better teammates than someone who can’t acknowledge the odds, and believes they’re a force unto themselves.

Ultimately, the ability to recognize fortune’s role makes for a more humble person—and humility is a more attractive quality than arrogance. In that sense, then, acknowledging fortune also pays off.

Seeing Opportunity

Experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman spent a decade studying “the luck factor” (pdf), examining what role luck had in people’s lives and its relationship to feelings of fortune. He argues that luck is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

In one experiment, Wiseman ran a half-page ad in a newspaper promising money for those who replied. Study subjects who were anxious and saw themselves as unlucky simply failed to see and respond to the ad. Meanwhile, people who identified as fortunate did see the ad, responded, got the money, and continued to feel lucky, according to their own reports.

Wiseman posits that feeling unlucky creates fear and anxiety, which in turn makes us less likely to see opportunities. Lucky people are, to some degree, those who keep their eyes, minds, and hearts open, making themselves available for fortune.

The Upside of Downsides

There’s no denying that bad things do happen to people all the time, many of which are beyond our control. Apparently, however, the way we frame events shapes the extent to which we focus on the negative versus positive aspects of experiences.

If the academics who study the science of luck are right, two people with identical experiences may frame the same facts completely differently. And the way they tell themselves the tale will dictate not only how they feel, but how others feel about them, and even their future fortunes.

The luckiest among us, then, are great storytellers—magical realists who can see the upside of downturns and consider how much worse things might have been. People who can spin a yarn that emphasizes what went right, rather than focusing solely on what went awry, ultimately create good fortune, and thus up their chances of getting lucky again. Don’t you feel lucky to know that?

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This post originally appeared on Quartz and was published August 17, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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