The Science of Luck

What are the chances?

When You Look for Luck, You Get Luckier

The confirmation bias, keeping a notebook, and The Luck Factor's methodology

Richard Wiseman’s book The Luck Factor addresses four main habits of lucky people: Be open to more opportunities, interact with a large network of people, break routines and keep a relaxed attitude toward life. After giving these tips to a group of subjects for a month, Wiseman writes, “The results were dramatic: eighty percent were happier and more satisfied with their lives—and luckier.” 

Unfortunately, he never mentions the elephant in the room, and the one key element that skews his research: the confirmation bias. When people start believing in one thing—for example, that they’re doing things that will enhance their luck—they begin paying more attention to the events that reinforce what they already believe. This happens for all sorts of events.  If you self-identify as a Republican or a Democrat, you do this, too. We tend to dismiss news that falls outside of our worldview.

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Confirmation biases are effects in information processing, distinct from the behavioral confirmation effect, also called “self-fulfilling prophecy”, in which people’s expectations affect their behaviour to make the expectations come true. Some psychologists use “confirmation bias” to refer to any way in which people avoid rejecting a belief, whether in searching for evidence, interpreting it, or recalling it from memory. Others restrict the term to selective collection of evidence. 

In the case of Wiseman’s research, people became luckier throughout the course of the study while they kept so-called luck journals, detailing fortuitous events. People who are given a journal by a researcher and are told to start writing down everything lucky that happens to them are, by definition, going to pay more attention to those lucky events. They’ll start interpreting more things that go their way as being “lucky.”

The act of paying attention to something and writing it down can cause many effects in the outcome of the study, including the subject-expectancy effect

The subject-expectancy effect, is a form of reactivity that occurs in scientific experiments or medical treatments when a research subject or patient expects a given result and therefore unconsciously affects the outcome, or reports the expected result.

Because this effect can significantly bias the results of experiments (especially on human subjects), double-blind methodology is used to eliminate the effect.

In other words, when both the researcher and the subjects expect that people will report an increase in luck, their behaviors conform to this. There are so many terms that refer to similar effects, but Wiseman never mentions this in his book. In truth, you don’t need to follow his four pieces of advice to become luckier: to get the sensation that your luck is improving, all you need to do is keep a luck journal.

Are the subjects in Wiseman’s study actually luckier, or do they just feel luckier? To some extent, it doesn’t matter. Believing that you’re lucky can lots of positive social benefits. But to another extent, it does, because if the subjects in Wiseman’s study aren’t objectively luckier—if they just think they’re lucky—then anyone can benefit from The Luck Factor by skipping all of that reading, believing in luck, and keeping a luck journal. Boom! Like magic. Now you’re lucky.

Karla Starr is a writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, former books editor of Willamette Week, and former books columnist for Seattle Weekly.

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