How Luck Shapes Your Life, Part 1

New research suggests your life may be more random than you think.

Posted Mar 28, 2018

Researchers are increasingly recognizing the role of chance in success—although some key traits help people become successful (perseverance, imagination, intellectual curiosity, to name a few), much of what drives success cannot be explained by controllable factors. Instead, success is simply being at the right place at the right time. Take your name, for example. People whose last names start with A are more likely to succeed than those whose last names start with Z, and double bonus if their names are easy to pronounce.

Two physicists and an economist recently teamed up to formally model the role of random chance in lifetime success. They created a mathematical model which tracked people over 40 years (all simulated). The people in their model were given differing amounts of talent (defined as the ability to successfully exploit lucky opportunities) and exposed to differing amounts of lucky and unlucky events throughout their (simulated) 40-year career. In the end, although talent had been normally distributed across their population, only a few people ended up being hugely successful. And those people? They weren’t the most talented—they were the ones who had the most lucky breaks. Talent did matter, since people had to have some talent in order to make the most of the opportunities presented to them. But people with little talent and a lot of lucky breaks tended to be much more successful than those who were highly talented but had fewer lucky breaks. And a lot of bad luck could bring down even the most talented people.

Luck, good or bad, builds on itself. Imagine two actresses who both audition for a recurring role on a TV show. They are equally good and neither has prior experience. In the end, the director flips a coin to pick between them. Due to the luck of a coin, one of them is awarded the role, the other one is not. The next time they both go to an audition they again perform equally well, but one of them has this recurring role on her resume. The actress with the prior role lands the job—after all, she has more experience. The next time those two actresses go up against each other, they do not perform equally well. The actress with two jobs under her belt has more practice and starts to outperform the other actress. And so, based on the flip of a coin, one star is born and the other one vanishes into obscurity. Termed “The Matthew Effect,” this phenomenon is named after a parable in the Gospel of Matthew in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

What the Matthew Effect means for us is that an early win can set people up for a lifetime of success, whereas early failures can be hard to come back from. At an extreme, adverse experiences in childhood (abuse, extreme poverty, neglect) can lead to life-long impairments. The more adversity children face, the more likely they are to be developmentally delayed, and to have physical and mental health problems into adulthood (heart disease, depression, diabetes, among others). Children who are lucky enough to be removed from these situations early in life (before age 2) are more likely to catch up with normal development than those who are placed in responsive environments later in life. Of course, random chance is not the only factor that matters—even in adverse environments some children manage tp thrive, prompting very interesting research on resiliency. But, unfortunately, those children are the exception, not the rule. And research suggests that even the children who struggle the worst in an adverse environment could succeed, and even thrive, if given the right opportunity.

If we can formally model the role of luck, this has important implications for how we approach and deal with inequality. The researchers who created the mathematical model showed that the most talented individuals succeed more often, and the population as a whole does better, when resources are evenly distributed rather than heaped on a few people who show signs of early success. Early success is likely to be as much a hallmark of good luck as it is of true talent, so focusing all of our money and attention on a small group of people ignores many talented people who didn’t catch a lucky break. At the same time, this approach creates an avalanche of future opportunities for a small group who may only be moderately talented (remember the actress who won a role on a coin flip). According to this research, if we want those people who are at the top to be the hardest working and most talented, then giving everyone the opportunity to succeed may be the best path to such an outcome.

Feeling that life is uncertain and uncontrollable can be scary. Humans tend not to do well with uncertainty and lack of control. In addition, feeling like the people who have the most got it because they were lucky can prompt feelings of injustice and unfairness. It’s much nicer to believe that those who have the most worked hard and earned their way to the top (and many of them did, remember that talent does matter!). But rather than feeling disheartened, I find this view of the world and the role of random chance to be rather freeing. While I can do everything in my power to take advantages of the opportunities afforded to me, I can also recognize the rightful place of bad luck and not beat myself up at every setback. What about you? Does recognizing the role of random chance make you feel better or worse? Do you agree that much of life is due to random chance?

Interested in how random chance might play a role in your romantic life? Read Part 2.

References

Pluchino, A., Biondo, A. E., & Rapisarda, A. (2018). Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure. arXiv preprint arXiv:1802.07068.

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