Down on Luck

Worrying that we're only inches away from the wrong place at the wrong time.

Posted Feb 04, 2010

One of the recurring themes of this blog has been the basic human tendency to overlook the external forces that shape our lives. We prefer to think of the social universe as a predictable and orderly place–one in which, for example, individuals act a certain way because "that's the kind of person they are." These are reassuring notions in a world that otherwise can seem disconcertingly random.

So we assume we actually "know" public figures based on highly constrained slices of performance we see filtered through the media. We blame the negative acts of others on a predisposition for malfeasance or misanthropic personality type. And more generally, we look right past the influence that daily situations have on our social perceptions, experiences, and behaviors.

diceFor similar reasons, we're typically down on luck. That is, we don't cotton too well to the suggestion that chance dictates important outcomes in life. Think about your best friends from college, as just one example. What was it that brought you together and made you as close as you once were? Shared interests, whether academic or decidedly non-intellectual? Compatible personalities?

Sure, those factors played a role. But if you're like most people, simple physical proximity was the major determinant of whether you and future friends even crossed paths to begin with. It's no coincidence that most students have a disproportionate number of friends from the building, floor, or hallway to which they were initially (and somewhat randomly) assigned.

floor planYes, these path-crossings evolve into meaningful relationships based on substantive bonds. But luck–in this case, in the form of the vagaries of the campus housing office–is often what opens the door to even our most intimate of relationships. Yet we have a hard time accepting this conclusion because it's distressing to think that friendships can be dicated by something as mundane as floor plan.

Our reservations about luck also guide reactions to other events. Consider the apparent outcry surrounding the newly famous Australian banker who made the poor choice to peruse risqué email attachments while a colleague was filming a live television news spot over his back shoulder.

Oops.

Dave the BankerAccording to media reports, "Dave the Banker" is currently on leave. And according to cnn.com, a website has now been launched by his supporters to try to save his job. The argument most often offered in his defense is that he was simply doing something that all of us do almost every day: using his office computer/time for activities unrelated to work.

(As an aside, some might suggest there's a sexual component to the story, a prerequisite for many a blog post, it would seem. But Dave the Banker's story isn't really about sex. He wasn't looking at hard-core pornography–apparently these were photos taken from GQ. And Dave didn't seem to be showing them to anyone else in the office, though, admittedly, even without the camera behind him, he wasn't really in private. But I imagine this story plays out in similar fashion had he been caught playing web poker, skyping with friends, or wasting time on youtube.)

This story is all about luck. Again, the chief argument for defending this happenchance internet star is the very happenchance nature of the incident. He had the misfortune to be caught doing something many–if not most–people do every day.

But is that really a compelling defense? Is it different than arguing with the cop that everybody rolls through the stop sign, it's just that you were the unlucky one who did so in front of a patrol car? Or claiming in court that everyone fudges their tax deductions, but you just drew the short straw of the random audit? Which leads to a few more questions, like even when the risk is quite small, don't we assume it nonetheless when we knowingly engage in behaviors we're not supposed to? And doesn't failure to enforce those rules because of the luck involved with their enforcement defeat the very purpose of having the rules in the first place?

Unlike the origin-of-your-college-friends example, for pecadillos like those just mentioned, it's not that we overlook the role of luck. Rather, we're uncomfortable with the notion of pinning major consequences to a bad outcome driven by an unlucky roll of the dice.

good luckIt's an interesting asymmetry, because we're quite taken with stories of good luck: the future movie star spotted by the talent scout in a mundane location, the fan in the right place at the right time to catch the record-breaking homerun ball, the downtrodden lotto player who miraculously hits the jackpot, and so on.

Our reactions to luck seem to boil down to self-focused concerns. We have a hard time shaking the idea that the luck-based outcome could just as easily have happened to us. So we enjoy hearing the good-luck story because it allows us to hold out hope that we, too, could be just moments away from sudden fame or fortune. And the bad-luck-related outcome sparks uncomfortable "there, but for the grace of God..." thoughts.

That's why, in the end, I imagine our Australian friend won't lose his job. It was a minor offense, of course, and Dave's supervisors will likely come to think of it in terms of "something similar could've easily happened to me." And even if he is fired, he'll probably hit the talk route circuit and end up with a book deal, leading all of us to bemoan why it is that we can't have the good fortune to get caught looking at semi-clad models on our office computer.

Luck, much like our reactions to it, can be fickle that way.