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The Battle Between Luck and Control

The competition between perceptions of control and luck for our attention.

Key points

  • People have a strong preference for control, which may diminish the acceptance of luck as a factor in success.
  • How information is presented may lead people to believe skill (or control) influences uncontrollable events.

My last post reviewed the role of luck (random, uncontrollable events) in one’s success. The verdict? In a world full of talented, hardworking people trying to achieve similar goals, luck is necessary but liminal, or more often an anonymous benefactor nudging people into the right places at the right times.

This determination appealed to people who recognized the influence of luck in their lives, but some sought an appeal. They said, “Nice article, but are you sure luck is the right word? What about this other word?” The proposed substitutions all implied a level of control absent from the definition of luck. Replacing randomness with control, especially in the ten-year span of events I wrote about, would require a Bond villain level of prescience outside my skill set, so yes, I was sure. However, the dissenters raised an interesting question: Why might someone shun the idea that events outside our control contribute to our success?

When our aims matter to us, we crave choice. Not stifling, endless options but a sufficient "some." For example, a menu limited to hamburgers and hot dogs may be inadequate at a barbecue but a bounty at a burger joint. However, the burger joint may have 420 possible toppings, sapping diners’ ability to think.

The extent to which we perceive events as being a consequence of our own behavior, and therefore potentially under personal control, is called our locus of control. Internal locus of control signifies a belief that events are the product of our own behaviors, a belief that can be reinforced by repeated successes.

Likewise, our perception of control collapses without choice. Case in point: helplessness deficits. Helplessness deficits are our default protective response to sustained uncontrollable aversive stimuli. Characterized by anxiety and passivity, they can linger long after we are free to do as we please. However, research suggests, control cancels out helplessness deficits; the expectation of control quiets the impact of negative stressors.

Agency. Autonomy. Self-efficacy. Self-determination. Regardless of the construct, perception of control seems essential to our well-being, so ingrained its loss elicits anger in infants, so integral some adults would pay to retain it. Even trivial choices are preferable to none. We are, as Leotti et al. said, born to choose.

An external locus of control (a belief that events are the product of chance, luck, or the influence of other people) is, by definition, contrary to our need for choice. Yet, most comments on the original post supported the idea that luck influenced success.

Perhaps those in accord value "hard work and luck" over "hard work or luck," having also seen random events add to or subtract from their hard work. Perhaps the dissenters define luck only as superstition and would rather limit lucky charms to breakfast.

More likely is that they were operating under the illusion of control, attempting to apply skill-related factors to chance situations, resulting in a higher expectation of personal success than warranted by objective probability. In skill situations, behavior causes outcomes. Success is controllable. And in storytelling, one of our most powerful teaching tools, effect usually follows cause. As a result, my choice to start the last post with a story instead of a summary may have lead some people to see skill in a series of chance events.

Certainly skill and hard work were necessary in those years. One cannot run a newspaper or complete a graduate program without them. But no amount of skill is required to develop a crush, be invited to events, or find yourself interested in a question at the exact time events allow the answer to be obvious. However, each milepost I discussed gifted me with something we all desire: the chance to choose.

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