Learn to be Lucky: What Luck Really is November 5, 2009

Learn to be Lucky: What Luck Really is

This post is by Jesse Galef


Even for those who don’t believe in luck, we know that some people feel luckier than others. Some people stumble across good jobs, good dates, and good opportunities for no discernible reason.  What can you do to become luckier?  According to this 2003 article I just came across, you listen to Richard Wiseman (who, by the way, has a great blog).

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 more than 2in 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.

Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected.

My research revealed that lucky people generate 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.

My one comment (besides, “isn’t that so interesting?”) would be that he didn’t mention the necessity of preparation.  I imagine that if you prepare for a variety of circumstances, you’ll be able to get the best outcomes and seem lucky.  Bad events won’t seem as unlucky and you’ll be ready to take full advantage of the good events.

Wiseman was even able to train people to become (feel) luckier!

I asked a group of lucky and unlucky volunteers to spend a month carrying out exercises designed to help them think and behave like a lucky person. These exercises helped them spot chance opportunities, listen to their intuition, expect to be lucky, and be more resilient to bad luck.

One month later, the volunteers returned and described what had happened. The results were dramatic: 80 per cent of people were now happier, more satisfied with their lives and, perhaps most important of all, luckier. While lucky people became luckier, the unlucky had become lucky.

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Niels Bohr.  His friend noticed a horseshoe hanging above Bohr’s door and asked why he put it up, given that he didn’t believe in luck.  Bohr replied, “I don’t believe in luck, but I hear it works even if you don’t believe.”

Having a “lucky” talisman can give people confidence – and thus lead to better results.  It becomes a self-reinforcing and helpful belief.  I might hesitate before bursting that bubble by arguing with them that luck doesn’t exist.  But if “luck” is just a combination of learnable skills, we would be empowering people, not breaking a spell by alerting people to the fact.

I found this article fascinating. Of course, I always love it when we come up with rational reasons for things that we previously considered out of our control, but it’s particularly relevant to me right now.  I’m in the process of looking for a new job (update on that soon) and trying to have a “resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good”.

Isn’t it “lucky” that I found this article when I did?

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  • medussa

    I live in a very crowded urban area, where parking is at a premium. I have always considered myself to be lucky when it came to finding parking, and many of my friends have tried to understand that and replicate it.

    Personally, I believe it has something to do with my preference for small cars with a small turning radius, and having the skill to fit into tiny spots. It helps that I refuse to get upset and anxious just because I have to go around the block again…

    I love the article, it makes perfect sense to me.

  • Thanks for posting this! I’ve seen similar research written up in the Skeptical Inquirer (or maybe it was the same researcher and a different article). And it’s fascinating: the degree to which we create our own luck, partly by our behavior, but also by our attitude towards it.

    Re the attitude: One of the studies described in the Skeptical Inquirer piece was about people’s attitudes towards a complex situation. They were asked to imagine a scenario in which they happen to be at a bank when it’s being robbed; a robber’s gun goes off; and they get shot in the arm. And they’re asked if this was a lucky or unlucky incident. The unlucky people said, “Unlucky — what bad luck to be at the bank when it’s being robbed!” The lucky ones said, “Lucky — I could have been shot in the head!”

    And I love the idea that luck is a teachable skill. I especially love the idea that deliberately introducing variety into your life increases your luck. Neat!

  • BrettH

    Thanks for the post, Jesse! This is fascinating stuff. I can’t wait to check out the links you included. I’ve always loved the idea that some ideas like luck or mild physics abilities are actually real… just not what the person who has them thinks they are. I took a class on computer AI once, it’s amazing the amount of work that goes into recreating things human intuition does very quickly without conscious thought. I think sometimes skeptics (myself included) forget that intuition might not be actual evidence, but it is the best guess made by a very powerful computer with the information at hand.

  • Edmond

    I asked a group of lucky and unlucky volunteers to spend a month carrying out exercises designed to help them think and behave like a lucky person.

    How in the heck do you even GET “lucky” and “unlucky” volunteers? Just ask them which they are? Is their opinion of themselves a scientific way of determining what their “luck factor” is? This is bunk.

  • Fett101

    Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune.

    Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine.

    Sounds more like a difference in character traits than luck. What would the results be if you tried the same test with introverts/extroverts or the deppressed/happy?

  • Ben

    Is their opinion of themselves a scientific way of determining what their “luck factor” is? This is bunk.

    Well, considering that luck is subjective, then I suppose it is. One person might think themselves lucky to have survived cancer, but another unlucky to get it in the first place. Cancer is oblivious to the human perception of luck, so it is up to the person to decide whether or not they consider it luck or not.

    This research seems to point to the fact not that people make their own luck (since it doesn’t exist), but by lacking confidence (seeing themselves as unlucky) they can miss opportunities they might otherwise have gained.

  • Dan Covill

    Former Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak, supposedly had a sign in his office that read:
    “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

    Luck has a lot more to do with attitude than with events.

  • schism

    Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”

    Were I presented with this challenge, I’d ignore that line and count the photos anyway just because I’d assume you were trying to trick me.

  • magetoo

    schism: That’s exactly what I thought too.

    And there’s the discovery that people who are depressed are supposedly better at judging their own abilities; is there perhaps a connection here?

    ( I can’t seem to find a good reference, but this recent blog post makes some other points that might be relevant: http://psych.drew3000.net/the-upside-of-depression/ )

  • @ schism / Magetoo: Same here.

    I wonder what would it do to the results if n subjects took over two minutes, but answered with the caveat: “well, page two said forty-three photos, but I wanted to be sure.”?

  • J B Tait

    @Arkonbey Yes.
    I used to be lucky. I would just go ahead and do things and they worked out right. I had faith in myself, and how the World worked.
    Then life contrived to slap me down. Things went wrong, even when I was meticulously careful and it kept happening. So many things got messed up, usually through no fault of my own, I developed Learned Helplessness, as in, things were ok unless I tried to improve my circumstances, in which case they invariably got worse, so I stopped trying.
    Where before I would have trusted the message and reported the printed number of photos, now I would be sure to count them for myself, and if things went as usual, indeed I would get a different count.

    I wonder how much the “lucky” people really were confident because things already had gone well, and how much the “unlucky” ones were responding to a history of things going wrong?
    And I wonder how much the improved outlook actually made it better for them or just made them not feel so bad about being unlucky.

  • Fett101


    From the article

    For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper: “Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.” Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity

    I was thinking the same thing until I read through the article. If the ‘unlucky’ people had seen that I don’t see how they would not attempt to claim the prize. Then again, maybe it could have been thought of as an attempt to make them lose their count.

  • Acitta

    Richard Wiseman also published a book on the subject called The Luck Factor.

  • muggle

    My skeptical thinking must get in the way of my luck. Like schism, I’d have counted anyway to verify if they were telling the truth or not.

    Also, the point about history is probably a factor. For instance, I had an extremely unlucky pick in who I married but I’m sure the dysfunctional family life I endured as a child has to be a factor. Now I avoid marriage like the plague because I learned the hard way how the wrong love can fuck your life up forever, even after he’s dead, because I married him. Who knows what wonderful love I’m throwing away with the bath water?

    I’m getting reflective in my old age and the older I get the more and the more I learn I realize how totally screwed I was by my lousy child and those two people who shouldn’t even had had one child having 8 in 10 years time because they left it up to God.

    And that whole I’ll teach you to be lucky promise creeps me out. It sounds rather cult-like and controlling. Vague empty promises if you do things as I tell you to.

  • AnonyMouse

    This is a skill that I cultivated shortly after using my faith. Without God to set everything up right in front of my face, I quickly learned how to look for opportunities – and to jump them as soon as they appeared. In fact, that’s how I got the computer I’m now writing this message on. 😛 In yo face, Jeezus.

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