The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Are Some People Born Lucky?

Escaping slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Sometimes a person is the victim of harrowing personal misfortunes. But sometimes we escape injury and death when it rains down liberally on many of the people around us.

Military leaders, including George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and George Custer enjoyed reputations for luck on the battlefield, having horses shot out from under them, or emerging unscathed when soldiers fell around them like bowling pins.

A soldier on the battlefield can expect to see plenty of bad fortune around them but civilians may also witness numerous freak accidents and premature deaths. When a lot of them occur close together, one cannot help wondering what it means.

Here is a limited sampling of outrageous fortune (as Shakespeare called it) from my own small circle of acquaintances and friends.

  • A young man was seated at an outdoor restaurant table in London when a column of masonry fell on top of him killing him instantly. He was engaged to the daughter of a friend.
  • The mother of a friend perished in a fire in Prague.
  • Out of a psychology department of four people where I once worked two died prematurely of cancers within a week of each other.
  • A healthy young woman in her twenties died unexpectedly at home. She lived on my street.
  • A man whom I recently met was hit by a car and killed while jogging..

Separately, these events are unusual. That they all happened to people around me is startling. Astonishingly, all happened from 2011 to date. Although shaken by each of
these events and their clustering in time, I do not feel any survivor guilt but am filled with curiosity.

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What it means if people around you seem to be falling like flies
It might be an illusion if:

  • You are getting older and your friends are aging along with you.
  • You are highly social and meet a lot of people who comprise a bigger target for the arrows of outrageous fortune.
  • Your friends and acquaintances are unusually morbid and regale you with every freak accident and unusual death they encounter.
  • You are morbid yourself and ruminate on tragic events that would scarcely register with the carefree, or the young.

Conversely the clustering of tragedies together in time might be real.

Assuming it is real, the clustering of deaths in time and in my small social network means nothing statistically speaking. For these events are all random with respect to each other. If randomness means anything, it means that the occurrence of one local fatality can have no power to prevent another.

This means that our lives are going to be full of clusters of both good and bad events. One person is repeatedly struck by lightning. Another goes to a casino and wins the biggest jackpot twice in the same evening. Such coincidences may seem unlikely, even impossible. Yet, in a random world, they are bound to occur and they do happen.

We describe such events as lucky or unlucky but luck really has nothing to do with it. The mere fact of cheating death when so many of my friends and acquaintances were struck down in their prime does not make me lucky, for instance.

To conclude otherwise is equivalent to persisting in the belief that Custer was lucky. In reality, he died full of lead in an ambush that he could not have foreseen. In the past, he had experienced a cluster of favorable events in war. Here was a cluster of bad events.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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