Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Analysing Luck

I've just been reading an interesting new book called Science 1001 (See at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com). The idea of the book is to cover all of science in 1001 easily digestible topics. Some of them are on obvious subjects - like Newton's laws. Others less so. I was particularly struck by the entry on luck.

This asks why some people seem to have an endless supply of luck while others are sadly lacking. Apparently Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, has found out that people who rate themselves as lucky are often extroverts, while those who think themselves unlucky are often introverts, whose self-doubt holds them back.

It's certainly true that creativity and getting on in life is, to some extent, a Pygmalion effect. If you believe your ideas are rubbish, you won't tell anyone about them, and you won't try to put them into practice. But I have two problems with the theory as presented.

Firstly, self-doubt and introversion aren't the same thing. It's entirely possible to be introverted and full of confidence in your own ability (the typical geek caricature, for instance). Secondly, though I am convinced by the Pygmalion effect, I think Dr Wiseman has partially got causality back to front. I suspect luck is primarily just that. It's a very common mistake to think that because something is distributed randomly it is distributed evenly. In fact a random thing like luck comes in clusters. You would expect some people to have a lot and some very little. (See my post on clusters.)

So I would expect some people, entirely randomly, to be more lucky than others. (Many entrepreneurs spring to mind.) And after a while, it wouldn't surprise me if those people became more extrovert as a result of their success.

Of course, a one paragraph article can't give the detail of the research, and I suspect Dr Wiseman's conclusion is more complex than 'luck is caused by extroversion' - but it's interesting to ponder.

6 comments:

  1. Very interesting stuff. I guess Wiseman is talking more about the type of luck which one 'makes' oneself, i.e getting your projects to succeed, and I can certainly see that having a self-image of yourself as a lucky person could well be valuable to that end (though presumably after some point it will spill over into overconfidence, which might prove a liability).

    In the case of successful entrepreneurs, it's also worth bearing in mind the survivorship fallacy, which suggests we should take their tales of success with a pinch of salt.

    Your point about randomness not equalling fairness is spot on, as spectacularly illustrated by the case of the lucky lady who won the New Jersey lottery.... twice.

    As it happens, this and related subjects are discussed in the section on "Coincidence" in that book's companion volume "Maths 1001" (which just happens to be written by me).

    Richard Elwes

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  2. Thanks, Richard. I shall drop hints with the PR people that we ought to review Maths 1001 on www.popularscience.co.uk too!

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  3. Thanks - that would be marvellous! That being the case, I've just bunged an email to the appropriate people encouraging them to post you a copy, which they may agree to do if they're feeling cooperative.

    Richard Elwes

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  4. They have already agreed, Richard - they will send one through as soon as the PR company has them in.

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  5. I read another review of this title, which sent blood pressure soaring. It seems yet another (yawn) attempt at justifying the notion that 'life is what you make of it'. Tell that to the victims in ... well, select your own genocidal/natural disaster scenario. Sounds awfully like bad science to me (not that I am qualified to judge - far from it!). Now off to seek further enlightenment in your post on clusters.

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  6. Minnie - most of the book is straightforward science, but I think it suffered in this section by trying to include soft sciences, where the topics are rather less concrete.

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