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Psychologist aims to deconstruct luck

New book posits that attitude and expectations influence how often it comes your way

Monday, May 12, 2003

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

Luck, says Richard Wiseman, isn't something to be left to chance.

(Illustration by James Hilston, Post-Gazette)

He should know. The British psychologist has spent 10 years studying lucky and unlucky people. And though luck is by definition unpredictable, his research findings have convinced him that people nevertheless can determine their own luck.

It sounds paradoxical, but Wiseman insists it's not.

"Luck often means being in the right place at the right time," explained Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. Lucky people, according to studies he summarizes in a new book, "The Luck Factor," live life in ways that tend to put them in that place and time.

Luck involves chance, but also something more -- expectations. It occurs when things go significantly better, or worse, than one might expect. That makes it a slippery subject for scientific study, Wiseman acknowledged, but one worth exploring because of its importance.

Certainly, luck smiled on Jack Whittaker on Christmas Day, when the West Virginia man won a $315 million Powerball jackpot.

Kris Leija's luck held during three heroic trips into a burning apartment building to rescue four children in Abilene, Texas, last month; his luck ran out during a subsequent TV interview when a sheriff's officer recognized him as a probation violator and arrested him; authorities now suspect he started the fire.

People who were unable to book passage on the Titanic's maiden voyage later counted themselves lucky, just as John Jacob Astor understood that his wealth was no defense against bad luck as the ship sank beneath him in 1912.

Luck can be less dramatic, but no less significant. Two people can be lucky at love if they chance to meet at a party -- or unlucky if one has car trouble and never arrives. A lucky tip from an acquaintance might lead to a dream job, or point a student toward a rewarding career. Stepping off the curb as a driver runs a red light, however, could cut short a promising life.

Luck is not the same as fortune. A person who is born into a loving or well-to-do family might be fortunate, as is someone who is born with a talent for music, or mathematics, or who is physically attractive. But that's not a matter of luck; that's just who they are. It's unfortunate when someone gets sick; someone is unlucky, however, when they get sick the day of a job interview or the day they are to compete in a football playoff game.

Given the extremely high odds he faced, Whittaker was very lucky to win the Powerball jackpot. Given the same odds, however, no one who lost out on the jackpot could be considered unlucky -- just unfortunate.

'Brilliant randomness'

Nicholas Rescher, a University of Pittsburgh philosopher and formerly director of its Center for Philosophy of Science, notes that luck's unpredictability stands in contrast to one of the characteristics that has made humans such a successful species: the capacity to plan, to reason and to anticipate events.

"If we humans were not as good at prediction as we are, and did not live in an environment that makes predictions possible in substantial degree, then we would not be here to tell the tale as the sorts of intelligence-guided creatures we are," he wrote in his 1995 book, "Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life."

Yet luck is an inherent part of life, Rescher said, and most people cherish it.

"Our psychological and emotional condition is such that we would not want to live in a preprogrammed world -- a world where the rest of our fate and future is preordained ... Even at the price of falling victim to chance and haphazardness, we yearn for novelty and innovation," he wrote. Most people realize that they likely will never win a lottery jackpot, but that doesn't stop them from buying tickets and hoping that luck will swing their way.

People have long tried to improve their luck and, faced with such a mysterious force, often have resorted to equally mysterious methods -- superstitions.

Often, an object becomes associated with great good luck. So, after winning an important tennis match, a player may attribute his good fortune to his shirt. After people learned that Admiral George Dewey wore a rabbit's foot during the Spanish-American War's battle of Manila Bay -- his squadron virtually destroyed Spain's fleet in the Philippines without suffering a single casualty -- the rabbit's foot became a favorite talisman.

Religious beliefs underlie some luck-associated superstitions. Knocking on wood was thought to bring good luck because of ancient beliefs in benevolent tree gods. The number 13 is thought unlucky because 13 people were at Christ's Last Supper. Walking under a ladder is unlucky, or so the thinking goes, because a ladder leaning against the wall forms a triangle and walking under it would break the Holy Trinity the triangle symbolizes.

The problem is that none of these work, for good or for ill, Wiseman said. Once a professional magician, Wiseman has devoted much of his career as a psychologist to investigating and dispelling beliefs about psychics, ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. Study after study has shown that these superstitions are groundless.

But the subject of luck often arose during these studies. "People would tell me, 'I'm not psychic, I'm just lucky," he said.

So he began advertising in newspapers and magazines, looking for people who considered themselves either lucky or unlucky.

A matter of perception?

About 12 percent of people in the general population identify themselves as lucky, 9 percent as unlucky and most people consider themselves neither lucky nor unlucky, Wiseman said. For what would become the 10-year Luck Project, he used roughly equal numbers of lucky and unlucky subjects.

In one of his first experiments, Wiseman had his subjects enter the national lottery. The "lucky" people did no better in the lottery than the "unlucky" people, demonstrating that nothing supernatural was going on.

"But the lucky people expected to do much better," Wiseman noted, which led him to study more of the psychological aspects of the two groups.

The two groups were indeed different, he found. For instance, lucky and unlucky people might describe the same event in different ways. A lucky person might marvel that she had escaped an automobile accident without serious injury; an unlucky person might say it was bad luck that she was in an accident at all.

But this wasn't just a "Is the glass half full or half empty?" situation. "The lucky people were obviously doing much better" overall than the unlucky people, he said. They were more likely to say they had a good marriage or relationship and that they enjoyed their jobs. Was this a function of luck?

In all, Wiseman identified about 1,000 lucky/unlucky people and studied about 400 in depth. In interviews, in tests of intelligence and intuition and in a variety of experiments, he identified characteristics that help explain the disposition of luck.

In one experiment, Wiseman asked his subjects to count the number of photographs in a newspaper. Unlucky people averaged about two minutes to finish the task, lucky people just a few seconds.

Why? On the second page of the paper was a message, in letters two-inches high, "Stop counting -- there are 43 photographs in this newspaper." Lucky people usually noticed it. Unlucky people tended to miss it, as well as second message halfway through the paper: "Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250."

Personality tests show unlucky people tend to be more tense than lucky people and that makes it less likely that they notice the unexpected. Lucky people are more relaxed and able to see what is there, rather than what they are looking for.

This ability to recognize and capitalize on chance opportunities is important, Wiseman said. So is creating the opportunities -- something that lucky people seem to do without even thinking. Lucky people often go to considerable lengths to break from routine and introduce variety to their lives. They may try new activities, or make an effort to talk with new people, or just try to do things in a different way, such as by taking a new route to work.

These new or random experiences introduce new opportunities that, in turn, lucky people recognize and act upon. And the more opportunities a person encounters, the more likely it is that one of those opportunities will turn out to be golden.

Attitude counts

Another important difference is how lucky people deal with bad luck. As in the example of a person who is in an auto accident, a lucky person tends to think about how things could have gone even worse, rather than dwelling on what went wrong.

This is called counter-factual thinking. It's something that has been documented in Olympic athletes -- bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists. Silver medalists often think, "If I had been just a little bit better, I could have won the gold," while bronze medalists think, "If I had done just a bit worse, I wouldn't have won anything."

As Rescher points out, lucky people not only are open to opportunities, but make preparations and develop skills so that they can protect themselves from bad luck.

"Napoleon's well-known tendency to entrust commands to marshals whose records showed them to have 'luck on their side' did not [in all probability] so much betoken superstition as a sensible inclination to favor those who had a demonstrated record for sagacious management of risks in warfare," Rescher wrote.

Wiseman acknowledges that these principles are hardly new, but said he was able to prove that they can be used to change a person's luck.

Two years ago, he invited people who considered themselves unlucky or luckless to "Luck School." They were asked to spend a month carrying out exercises designed to break routines and open them to opportunities. Four out of five subsequently reported they were happier, more satisfied and, in their own estimation, luckier, he said.

Wiseman himself may be happier. Whereas he once spent much of his time telling people what they didn't want to hear -- that ghosts aren't real and psychics have no special powers -- he's now telling them they can improve their luck.

"You're telling them something they want to hear," he explained.


Byron Spice can be reached at bspice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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