What is luck more generally, and why do people want it so badly? Why do we even care if black cats cross our paths, or if we are wearing our smelly yet lucky underwear while watching our favorite teams play?
We all grow up with the general idea that our actions are not the only factor at play in the outcomes of our lives — that there is some amount of random chance that’s either working in our favor or against it. We call this random chance luck. If we’re lucky, good things happen, and if we’re unlucky, bad things happen.
The belief in luck has manifested itself in different ways for different cultures and traditions for as long as there has been recorded history. In Western countries, there’s an old saying: “See a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck.” In Eastern countries, you often can’t enter a restaurant without catching a glimpse of a statue of a cat waving at you.
Whatever the case, the idea of having good fortune and doing everything possible to channel this ephemeral blessing is often far more valuable to people than the coins or cats themselves. It may work, and it may not – but in the off-chance it does, it can’t hurt, right? Just as accumulating good luck is highly desirable, avoiding bad luck is also of significant importance in many cultures. In fact, there are countless superstitions people hold for the sole purpose of avoiding misfortune, such as skipping the 13th floor in high-rise buildings or not walking under ladders. You may have your own personal superstitions about how to avert disaster.
In either case, the thing about lucky charms and superstitions is that they represent our human attempt to control what seems uncontrollable. These forces were ascribed to the fates or malevolent spirits in the past. Today, the idea that things happen “for no reason” or because of random chance is no less terrifying – and we still try to appease those gods of chaos and randomness, if we can.
The only thing we know for sure about luck is that we want to have it on our side.
The Human Need for Control
We have developed an increasingly better understanding of our world and universe throughout history. Yet even now, many of the complexities of our day-to-day existence are so far beyond comprehension that we can only reliably predict and understand a tiny fraction of them. It doesn’t matter if you’re one of the world’s top engineers — there are still things that would appear magical to you. We know logically that everything is a result of cause and effect. Still, when we are unable to actually see the underlying cause and effect in a given scenario, we have a strong tendency to find or create other explanations for why everything is the way it is. This is an unavoidably human emotional reaction to the sometimes vast and ungraspable laws of the natural world. The idea of luck is one way we understand these complex universal mechanisms. In the face of randomness, we can still get to feel somewhat in control and less subject to the realities of chaos theory.
We are constantly seeking control, so we think if we could only know what is going to happen, then we would be able to use that knowledge to our advantage. It’s arguable this is the very foundation of the scientific method itself! Good luck charms, superstitions and rituals, then, can be seen to come from the same impulse, although nobody would call them scientific.
This drive for control causes us to model, predict, and manage the world around us, which has led to a great deal of scientific and technological advancement over time — but it also comes at a cost. Where we find limited or no success in our ability to understand our surroundings, we lie to ourselves to fill in the gaps. When things don’t go as we planned or hoped, we simply explain away our failures as resulting from the incompetence of others, or just plain bad luck. “Bad luck” becomes a black box, or a container into which we can file away all the unexplained, unaccountable events we frustratingly lack an explanation for.
A blackjack player can control their bet and whether they hit or stay, but to beat the house consistently enough to win some money, they’ll need random chance to go in their favor more often than it goes against them. They’ll need luck. The act of counting cards is important to explore here: does remembering the cards that have already been used from a deck and using that data to calculate probabilities of success given the composition of remaining cards, card counters can make better-informed decisions at the blackjack table. They make that black box smaller and give luck less chance to act.
Is it still “lucky” to win at gambling if you know the probabilities for all the cards being dealt? At what point does luck turn into an informed decision or calculated risk based on statistics?
And luck doesn’t just apply to good things happening to us; it also applies to narrowly avoiding bad things happening to us — instances when the danger or negative consequences were close enough to feel. For example, someone may consider themselves lucky to be alive after escaping a car crash relatively unscathed. It would be fairly jarring to realize that you could have died, and no amount of luck or lucky underwear would have saved you — it’s just how random and chaotic the world can be. As you are sitting right now and reading this sentence, who is to say there haven’t already been countless unseen events that have spared your life – without you even realizing it’s happened?
Things are continuously happening to us and around us, and we often have no ability to intervene or otherwise impact the outcomes of events in our own lives. Our winning days at the casino and the near-misses driving on the interstate are due to good fortune, while the losing days and when actual harm does come to us result from bad luck.
Luck, then, is simply an explanation for why good and bad things happen to us; an attribute we use to give meaning to random events. It’s the story we tell to give us the illusion of understanding – and by extension, control.
The idea of luck is not only useful for making ourselves feel better about the chaos around us. We also commonly use luck to make others feel better, too, attributing our own successes to luck rather than skill to make another person feel okay about their failures. When a basketball player makes a half-court shot at the last second to win a game, it will likely be called a “lucky shot” whether the player practices half-court shots consistently or not. The other team might still feel bad about their loss, but knowing they just caught an unlucky break can alleviate their sense of responsibility for coming up short. “Bad luck” can also explain away poor performances, protecting not just our egos but our very sense of justice and the way the world works.
These examples illustrate how we tend to use luck as an attribution to create false meaning in the effort to make ourselves and others feel better. Ultimately, what we can realize is that luck is not something that comes from the gods or nature. It is a human creation — a coping mechanism — for explaining that which we can’t logically or rationally explain ourselves.
The “Scientific” View on Luck
Given what we now know about luck, you may not be surprised that the concept of luck is regularly at odds with a scientific understanding of the world. And in fact, scientists often describe what we call luck by another name — chance and probability.
Upon closer examination, this simple change in terminology can be uncomfortable for many people. This is because even though luck itself may not be within our control, it does at least give us a feeling of control over a world governed by random chance. We may unconsciously imagine that luck is still doled out according to merit somehow, or according to the dictates of “fate.” And believing in luck can potentially be even more comforting for many people if that belief coincides with the idea that there’s always the chance to get more luck.
Nobel Prize winner and Princeton math professor John Nash is quoted in the movie A Beautiful Mind, saying, “I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in assigning a value to things.” We can infer that the “value” John Nash is referring to is a probability that in a random scenario given the circumstances “A,” the outcome will be “B,” “C,” or “D.” Through this scientific approach, we can’t predict exactly what will happen, but we can model the likelihood of each of the possible outcomes based on the information we do have.
Luck is entirely absent from this equation, replaced by chance in the form of probabilities.
To an outsider who doesn’t understand or consider the probabilities of each outcome, they may consider themselves lucky if their most desirable outcomes become a reality, and unlucky if not. But if the outcomes they desire are statically improbable, and in the end, they don’t occur, is there actually anything unlucky about that? A scientist would more than likely argue not. They would suggest that “luck” in this case is a human intervention alone. It’s not personal. The outcomes didn’t really happen to anyone – they just happened. After all, is a single event that favors one and punishes another a lucky or unlucky one? What happens if we remove the human interpretation completely?
Brad Watson, scientist and author of the booklet, There Are No Coincidences — there is synchronism, design and alignment, said that Nash was both wrong and right. Watson believes that luck is an integral part of our existence, and even went so far as to create an equation that assigns a value to luck:
Luck 100 =
[karma 4 + modesty 1] x
[desire 4 + actions 4 + abilities 4 + contribution 4 + blessings 4]
Watson leaves it up to the individual to interpret this equation, and your own feelings about luck may determine what, if anything, it means to you. Again, we see that luck always seems to be colored with inescapable narrative elements. However, one need only examine some of Watson’s other beliefs — such as the one that he is the reincarnation of both Jesus and Albert Einstein — to get an idea of how luck and deception often go hand in hand.
Locus of Control
In the field of personality psychology, the locus of control is defined as the strength of a person’s belief that they — and not external forces beyond their control — determine the experiences and outcomes of their own life. This is important: it suggests that the phenomenon of luck and our human perception of that luck are two different things. Again, we are dealing with attributions made by human beings with a particular stake in random, impersonal events.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Sigmund Freud are two among many philosophers and psychologists who have attributed a belief in luck to a lower degree locus of control for one’s life, and subsequently, an outlet for escape from personal responsibility. Believing in luck is comforting when we fail or otherwise feel dissatisfied, because the blame for all of the negative consequences can be shifted away from us. In this case, we didn’t need to work harder or take a different approach; all we needed was a little more good luck, and we could have been successful.
With an external locus of control, you dial down your own agency and see the events of your life as outside of your influence. With an internal locus of control, you see yourself as the main driver of events. Psychologists are interested in this attribution of events and want to see how functional it is, i.e., which mindset is most likely to lead to wellbeing and success. Unlike statisticians or philosophers, however, they have little to say about the objective accuracy of these attitudes – perceptions aside, how much do humans have control over the outcomes of their lives?
I would be remiss in mentioning the concept of control over luck without talking about the Gambler’s Fallacy. The Gambler’s Fallacy is the feeling that there are predictable patterns in what are actually random sets of events. Here’s a question: if you flip a coin and ten times in a row the coin lands face up, what is the probability
that the next flip will reveal tails?
The correct answer is that the probability is 50%. It is always 50%. But for the human onlooker, the more heads that appear, the more overdue are the tails, and the more likely they are to bet money that the next flip will be tails. Statisticians have long known that the mathematical laws of probability are seldom in alignment with what our human, story-making minds think should happen, i.e., what we feel is “intuitive.”
For example, if you roll dice, you might feel that you should eventually roll a seven because… it’s just time for it to happen. Never mind the fact that this is not statistically or probabilistically sound; you are attempting to create order in something impossible to have control over. You want to manipulate a quantity that will supposedly change the outcome: luck.
You are also attempting to find logic and an explanation for a random series of events. There is no better illustration than how early mankind started to see entire scenes in the night sky in the form of constellations. The pattern of stars in the sky are certainly randomized, but humans tend to find patterns and put things into contexts we already know. While such an ability was and is crucial for our survival in the world, it makes us bad at understanding probability. Really bad.
The Gambler’s Fallacy is the notion that just because X happened, Y should happen, X shouldn’t happen, or X should happen again. More often than not, these events are all independent of each other, which should guide your decision-making to be less biased. Humans have a bias towards narrative, and are looking for cause and effect relationships (or even, if you like, punishment and reward) where it may not exist.
This cognitive bias represents a broader phenomenon known as apophenia, which is the human tendency to see patterns and connections in random data points. This is why people see rabbits in clouds and elaborate scenes in inkblot tests. The term was coined by neurologist Klaus Conrad, who defined the tendency as an “unmotivated seeing of connections.” It seems to stem from an evolutionary desire to make sense of information and understand the current environment we are in.
Apophenia likely did serve an important purpose for those who constantly had to think about their safety and security. This still applies to many of us who live outside the concrete jungles of cities and towns. If you recognize a pattern of danger, you can more easily flee, fight back, and survive. If you miss these patterns, you’re going to be something’s dinner. One’s propensity for apophenia could literally mean the difference between life and death. For instance, you might notice leaves rustling, the birds have disappeared, and dust is rising from a nearby bush. If you fail to put together that this is a pattern of an impending attack from a jaguar, then you’re dinner. It turns out seeing patterns where they may not exist can be a boon — though not when you are gambling. However, they can also lead to a skewed perception of reality.
Apophenia, notably, gives rise to the locus of control.nciple of locus of control in: In:
On the other hand, Rotter described the external locus of control as “the degree to which persons expect that the reinforcement or outcome is a function of chance, luck, or fate, is under the control of powerful others, or is simply unpredictable.” This fatalistic way of viewing the world does not come without its own benefits, including generally being more passive and accepting. If a person believes that they do not have any control over a given matter and should just be at peace with whatever happens, that can give them a very even-tempered approach to life. Or make them shrug and give up.
In sum, a person with a strong internal locus of control will take responsibility for the failure and success of their actions in achieving their desired outcome, believing that their failures are due to a lack of ability, focus, or effort. Meanwhile, a person with a mostly external locus of control will be likely to attribute their successes and failures to either being lucky or unlucky. Like many other personality traits, the locus of control is not merely black and white, but rather a spectrum. Some people have an entirely internal or external locus of control, but it is more common for individuals to have a mix of both of the views.
Interestingly, it is possible for an individual’s position on the locus of control spectrum to change over the course of their life, in response to different events. While some people’s outlook might be relatively static, the general trend is for younger and elderly people to have a higher external locus of control than middle-aged people who are more success-oriented during their career prime.
Due to their beliefs in their own self-control and ability to influence their environments, people with a high internal locus of control see their future as being in their own hands. In the case of children or the elderly, though, there may be objective limitations to what is and isn’t in their scope of control.
There is, of course, a downside to high levels of personal responsibility. When failures inevitably occur, people with an internal locus of control may be tempted to accept the blame, rather than excusing the failure based on other people or circumstances.
On the contrary, people who have a high external locus of control believe that they have little or no control over events and what other people do. Some may even allow this lack of control to go even further, believing that other people actually have control over them and there is nothing that they can do besides fall in line and accept their fate.
So, how does luck figure into the locus of control? Well, guess who tends to possess a greater belief and even reliance upon the concept of luck? Those with an external locus of control — luck fits neatly into that description. Both luck and an external locus of control can be characterized by accepting what happens and relying on external events, even and especially those events you don’t understand or even like.
When an individual possessing a high external locus of control finds success in life, they will be more likely to express modesty, attributing their successes to luck rather than their own skill and effort. It’s not false humility — they believe it could have happened to anyone, and they were just lucky to be there. On the other hand, when they experience failure, they won’t feel personally responsible to the same extent as a person with a high internal locus of control. They are able to conveniently blame bad luck, so they are less likely to dwell on failure for long.
Another characteristic of having an external locus of control is the relatively lower likelihood of being proactive or acting in their best interests. At its worst, this can look like apathy or a victim complex. When events are chaotic and complicated, they may take a step back and let things work themselves out, assuming that they wouldn’t be able to make a significant difference anyway, even if they tried. As you can imagine, this isn’t something that creates enormous feelings of competence or confidence.
Those with internal loci of control will beat themselves up when they fail (it is their fault, right?), but they’re also more likely to take credit when they succeed, allowing it to boost their confidence in themselves – rightly or wrongly.
Someone with an external locus of control would be happy if you told them “good luck,” whereas someone with an internal locus of control would reply, “I don’t need luck!” Which are you more likely to say? That will likely tell you all you need to know about your locus of control and how you feel you contribute to your life’s path. The more control you feel, the more responsible and accountable you feel, and thus the harder you work.
The big question here is, does our perception of luck actually impact the experience of luck in our lives? Whether we are accurate or inaccurate in our attributions and interpretations, is there an attitude most correlated with actual success?
Stable vs. Fleeting Luck
Researchers from UCLA and Columbia University teamed up to take a deeper look at how people’s perceptions of luck vary and its impact on their behavior.
They found that generally, people who have an external locus of control can be broken up into two subcategories: those who believe luck is stable, and those who view it as fleeting.
Having a stable view of luck means that you believe people are consistently either lucky or unlucky — almost as if luck itself isn’t so much an external force but rather a personality trait. If Michael wins at blackjack five trips to the casino in a row, he must be a really lucky guy. Forever.
The group that views luck as fleeting sees it as entirely external, believing that a person’s luck is unpredictable and oscillates back and forth between favorable and unfavorable. Michael has been consistently lucky to win money five times in a row at the casino, so his luck is due to run out any day now. It was his “lucky day”, but anything could happen tomorrow.
How do these views affect people personally?
For those individuals who have an external locus of control and a view that luck is stable, research has shown that this leads to a higher drive for achieving personal success. This stable outlook is correlated with greater feelings of personal control, which is in turn attributable to being more motivated and proactive about achieving the outcomes they desire.
This may seem surprising, but this phenomenon makes sense upon closer examination. If you believe in luck as a stable force, and you also believe that your personal luck is within your sphere of influence, it follows that you would be more consistent in pursuing your goals. We’re dealing with luck, but a stable, known quantity of luck. After all, you have a fixed and knowable advantage over all those people who aren’t as lucky as you.
On the contrary, taking the approach to luck as a random and un-influenceable can make you wonder, “What’s the point of even trying?” You may as well live in a world where every outcome of every moment is determined by the random spin of a wheel. Even if something good happens in such a universe, all you can assume is that it is currently happening – nothing suggests that it will continue. But being skeptical and simply resigning yourself to your fate will undermine any motivation to make the effort to be successful in the first place.
Let’s take an example from the restaurant industry. There are many myths about how many restaurants fail in the first few years after opening. Still, even conservative estimates put this number somewhere around 60% of restaurants failing within three years. We can imagine that somebody with an external locus of control and a fleeting view on luck might look at that probability for failure and say, “Why even bother? My restaurant would probably fail, anyway.” Even if they had already made a success of a restaurant in the past, this would mean nothing. The random and often cruel hands of fate might just as easily smash their dreams of a subsequent restaurant.
Retain the same external locus of control, but switch the view on luck from fleeting to stable, and suddenly our prospective restaurant owner might be thinking, “Only 40% succeed, but I’m luckier than most people, so I think I’ll be in the 40%.” And if they had succeeded before, they may be tempted to think, “I’ll probably be in the top of that 40%.”
Here, the probabilities remain the same, but the appraisal of those probabilities varies.
As the old cliché goes, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Simply believing that you are in some way luckier than average can drastically increase your likelihood of success. This is not because self-belief is a magical talisman that wins you a miracle, but because, if nothing else, it’s going to motivate you to at least try. The person who doesn’t try automatically ensures they get a poor outcome.
It’s safe to say only knowing whether somebody believes in luck without knowing whether they view luck as stable or transitory does not give us enough information to properly infer how success-oriented that individual may be. But when we put the two pieces of information together, we can come to a couple of general conclusions.
An external locus of control combined with a stable view on luck will typically result in being “lucky” because they will be looking for more opportunities, similar to their counterparts with internal loci of control. They’ll be acting.
An external locus of control combined with a fleeting view on luck will typically result in being passive, possibly also leading to a state of learned hopelessness in the absence of feeling in control. If you wanted to lose weight and you felt that nothing you did or ate would make a difference, why would you bother? In fact, if that was the rule, you might as well eat whatever you want…
Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider developed attribution theory, which deals with how we attach meaning to our own behavior and the behavior of other people – for a final look into the psychology of control and luck.
The theory states that people will attach meaning through one of two ways — internal attribution, where personality traits determine a person’s success or failure; and external attribution, where a person’s success or failure is the result of external circumstances. Did the salesman fail to make any sales today because he wasn’t charismatic and persuasive enough, or did he simply get unlucky with difficult customers who weren’t serious about making a purchase? The story you tell yourself will instantly show you where you lie on the spectrum of attribution.
It sounds similar to the loci of control theory, doesn’t it?
Heider believed that we tend to view the failures of others through a lens of internal attribution, believing that internal personality traits caused the person’s blunder. When it is instead ourselves who have erred, we are much more likely to use external attribution — blaming the error on situational factors or other people instead of taking personal responsibility for it.
The same theory can be applied in the case of achieving some kind of success. We will be more likely to attribute our own success internally, but the success of others externally, perhaps to “luck.” When we succeed, it’s because of our intelligence and charm, but when we fail, it’s because of our bad luck and external circumstances. It’s very convenient and defensive.
Humans are always trying to have their cake and eat it, too, being celebrated for success without being held accountable for failure. It makes sense that our attributions are determined in good part by our emotional and motivational drives. We make self-serving attributions to feel better in our success and avoid personal ramifications in our failures.
We will also tend toward self-serving attributions in the face of what we view as personal attacks. Instead of addressing the criticism, we will point to other injustices in this unfair world as distractions or excuses. This is especially true for people who have a strong need to avoid failure at all costs, as they will be most likely to make attributions that put themselves in a good light.
But are these self-serving attributions actually harming us long term? If we never take responsibility for our failures, how can we expect to learn from them and not repeat them? Furthermore, if we truly believe that luck is a major factor in our ability to succeed, then we are much less likely to have perseverance and discipline when external circumstances aren’t in our favor. This is basically the logic behind making excuses and engaging in rationalizing behaviors.
We also tend to blame victims for their own suffering in a subconscious effort to distance ourselves from suffering the same plight. Yet another tendency we have is to view ourselves as more complicated than others, thinking we are more multifaceted and less predictable because we spend more of our time thinking introspectively than about the complexities of other people.
Ultimately, what can you take away from understanding these natural human tendencies?
If we prefer to think of ourselves as responsible and accountable and generally holding our own fates in our hands, then we do away completely with the concept of luck. This gives you a full path toward victory, but also failure. Perhaps we engage in lucky thinking as a defense mechanism to protect against those inevitable failures. In a way, it can be said that personal responsibility is almost directly in conflict with feelings of luck.
Take two people who have the exact same amount of talent and work equally hard. One goes out for lunch at the very moment the other is discovered by a talent agent eating lunch at his desk. Would this be considered lucky the person was simply hungry for something specific at the right moment? Would this be considered unlucky for the person who stepped out for lunch at the exact wrong moment?
It might feel like this chapter has been leading up to the point of declaring that a belief in luck is going to hold you back, but that’s not quite the point. It’s the belief that you can’t help your circumstances, and that luck will either make or break you that will hold you back. Realizing that you have the power to change your reality is what will lead to situations we would call lucky.
To whatever degree you believe in it, luck will not be the primary factor that determines the outcomes in your life. But it does matter.