Monday, 25 February 2008

The Luck Doctors

It may come as a surprise to some of you to learn that I actually have a PhD ("oooh... get him!" I hear you cry). Believe me, it sometimes still surprises me. But 10 years ago I was awarded a PhD by the University of Hertfordshire, thereby becoming a "Dr". Perhaps even more surprising was the topic of my PhD... luck! The full title was Perceptions of One's Own Luck: The Formation, Maintenance and Consequences of Perceived Luckiness. A bit of a mouthful, I know, but PhD titles are supposed to sound clever and obscure, aren't they?

It was a study of the 'psychology of luck', and examined people's beliefs about luck and explored the psychological differences between 'lucky' and 'unlucky' people. Lucky people were those people who felt that seemingly chance events tended to work out in their favour, whilst unlucky people were those who felt they tended to work out against them. The aim of the project was to discover why some people believe themselves to be lucky whilst others believe themselves to be unlucky. Do these people really lead very different lives? And if so, is there any psychological reasons why this might be the case? Or do 'lucky' and 'unlucky' people actually lead rather similar lives but differ in the ways in which they make sense of the events that happen to them?

The research was the brainchild of Dr (now Professor!) Richard Wiseman who, in collaboration with Dr Peter Harris, had obtained a research grant from the Leverhulme Trust, a charitable organisation that supports research in a variety of areas. I was employed as the Research Assistant working on the project, and took the opportunity to register for a PhD at the same time with Richard and Peter as my supervisors. Together, we interviewed and collected other psychological data from self-perceived lucky and unlucky people for over three years.

The picture that emerged was quite remarkable. Lucky and unlucky people, on the whole, were very different from each other. For example, while lucky people tended to be far more optimistic, and more extraverted individuals, unlucky people were more likely to be anxious and experience depressed mood states. Moreover lucky and unlucky people differed in the extent to which they remembered the positive and negative events in their lives, and also in the way they interpreted events. Lucky people found it easier to remember events they considered lucky than unlucky events, and were more likely to label events as lucky in the first place. This latter point is nicely illustrated by following little experiment:
Imagine you are waiting to be served in a bank when an armed robber enters and fires a shot. The bullet hits you in the arm.
How lucky or unlucky would you regard this event? We asked people to rate the event (along with other events) on a scale from -3 (very unlucky) to +3 (very lucky), and found that there was a wide range of opinions regarding the luckiness of events such as this. While some people consider this event to be unlucky, others consider it to be actually rather lucky. In both cases, the judgement of how lucky or unlucky the event is made by imagining how the event might have been different from what happened. For example, those who consider the event to be unlucky can easily imagine a scenario where the bullet might have missed you altogether and so see it as being rather unlucky to have been hit by the bullet. Meanwhile, people who see the event as lucky are imagining a situation where the bullet might have hit you in the chest causing much more damage, perhaps even killing you. By comparison, a bullet in the arm is actually quite lucky. This just goes to show that an event is not necessarily lucky or unlucky in itself, it becomes perceived as such by the person making the observation. What was particularly interesting was that lucky people were more likely to rate the event as lucky while unlucky people were more likely to rate it as unlucky.

As I say, it is now 10 years since I was awarded a PhD for my contribution to this project on the psychology of luck. In the years since then my interest in this topic faded somewhat as I pursued other lines of research. In the meantime, my PhD supervisor, and the instigator of the 'luck project', Richard Wiseman, went on to conduct a whole lot more research on the psychology of luck which culminated in a best-selling book called The Luck Factor (Arrow Books, 2004) in which Richard identified four main principles that could "change your luck - and your life"!

The funny thing was that by the time this book was published I had developed a healthy lack of interest in whole 'luck' research. If anything, I was probably one of the most cynical about the ideas presented in this book. It was one thing to identify the various differences between self-perceived lucky and unlucky people, but another thing to suggest that you could change your luck by changing the way you think!

What is perhaps even funnier is that, not only am I now finding myself being drawn back to the ideas talked about by Richard in The Luck Factor, but I am also becoming convinced that Richard has barely scraped the surface. I've got a feeling that there could well be plenty more to discover about the psychology of luck, fate and destiny!

Sunday, 10 February 2008

How To Be Free

I hope my brother isn't reading this. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't want him to be 'free'. In fact, quite the opposite, which is why I bought him Tom Hodgkinson's book How To Be Free for Christmas. The only thing is, I haven't actually given him the book yet as I haven't seen him since before Christmas.

However, this has given me a chance to have a flick through the book myself (taking care not to crease the cover of course!) and it's full of some worthy advice. For example, in a chapter called 'Reject Career and All Its Empty Promises' Hodgkinson urges us to forget about the idea of chasing a career, but instead encourages us to find our vocation, our calling, which should be something that you enjoy doing as well as earn you a living:

We have a duty to look into our hearts and discover our vocation, find our gift. Once we have done this, we will find that other parts of our life follow quite naturally... ... And how do you find your vocation, your gift? The answer is simply to do nothing for as long as you possibly can. In the same way that wise gardeners advise that the first step when taking over a new garden is to do nothing for a year, in order to see what grows there and only then to design your own unique, useful and beautiful garden, so I would advise taking a few months off, or even a year, if you can manage it. (p. 48-49)

I like that idea. And it makes much sense. If you want to find out what you really want to do with your life, then I guess taking a little time out to discover what this might be is something to be encouraged. This sentiment continues in another chapter called 'Cast Off Your Watch', in which he urges us to... er, cast off our watches and stop being a slave to time:

Do less. Add space. Cut down on your scheduled visits and meetings to an absolute bare minimum to make way for the more enjoyable and life-affirming 'things that just happen'. When you let things happen to you, life starts happening too. So, allow giant gaps between appointments. Allow giant gaps in your life, because your life is in the gaps. (p.81)

All good stuff, and reminds me of the immortal words of John Lennon who said that 'Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans'. But then again (as Tim in The Office notes) John Lennon also said 'I am the Walrus, I am the Egg Man', so who knows what to make of that.

Still, Tom Hodgkinson's book contaains some good advice. Just don't tell my brother. Not yet anyway.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Garroping Gourmet

One of the themes of this blog is that nothing is random. I guess this post just might be the exception to prove the rule. This morning, while watching Saturday Kitchen on the BBC, I got talking to Rachel about the Galloping Gourmet who was a TV chef from my youth who used to run on to the set, jumping over chairs, and would cook a meal for himself and a member of the studio audience.

As I couldn't remember the guy's name, I turned to our friend Google. It turns out he was called Graham Kerr (I had been saying he was called Robert something...). Anyway, our other friend YouTube provided us with a few clips from the show. It was the clip copied below that I found myself laughing out loud at for some reason, and so I include it here. It lasts about 9 minutes, but it was the first few minutes (after the titles) that had me laughing.

Uggly boots

I think I've got to get myself a pair of Ugg boots. They are clearly the footwear of choice this season. Last year it was Heelys, but this year it's the Ugg. Every third person seems to be wearing a pair. But am I the only one who thinks they look ever so slightly like slippers for the infirm?

Friday, 8 February 2008

But I'm not the only one

If my life is one long dream, then are you just a character I've dreamt up as part of that dream? Or are you dreaming your own dream? In which case, am I simply a character in your dream? Whose dream is this anyway?

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

You may say I'm a dreamer

The protagonist in the film Waking Life (I still haven't seen it yet, only the clips on YouTube) is portrayed as being in some kind of 'lucid dream' type state as he goes on his journey seeking the opinions of various people on the meaning of life. Whereas in a 'normal' dream, you are effectively the passive observer or experient of the dream sequence, in a lucid dream you become aware that you're dreaming and you are then able to control the dream.

I can't say I've ever had a lucid dream (not that I can remember), although I gather it is something you can train yourself to do. As I understand it, part of this training involves asking yourself at various points during your waking life, "am I asleep or am I awake?". The idea is that you will eventually start asking yourself this question in your sleep when you are dreaming, thus raising the possibility of becoming aware of yourself dreaming.

Some people think that your whole life can be regarded as one big dream, and when you die you awaken from the dream. From this perspective, imagine what it would be like to live your waking life as a lucid dreamer... first you become aware that you're dreaming and then you realise you can control the dream. Imagine that.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Full Circle

Just to show that these not so random thoughts on life really aren't completely random, but that there really is a pattern to all this, it's worth pointing out that our friend Professor Robert Solomon probably wouldn't have taken up Philosophy if it hadn't had been for Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of 'eternal recurrence'.

When Solomon was a medical student at the University of Michigan, he seemingly stumbled across a crowded lecture hall in which a professor was delivering a Philosophy lecture in which he was discussing Nietzsche's idea of 'eternal recurrence'. Solomon was apparently so moved by the lecture and this idea in particular, that later that day he approached the Dean of the Medical School to transfer from Medicine to Philosophy.

Nietzsche at the movies

Who'd have thought it? It would seem that the movie Groundhog Day is putting some of the ideas of 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche at the heart of its plot. In the film, TV weatherman Phil Connors lives the same day over and over again. At first, he regards this as something of a curse: having to live the same day, a day he didn't enjoy, again. Eventually, after experiencing the days events repeatedly hundreds, if not thousands, of times he slowly discovers the positive aspects of reliving the same day again and again.

Well, it seems that Nietzsche took this idea very seriously. He suggested a thought experiment in which you considered the implications of living your life over and over again. That is, at the moment you die you go right back to the very beginning and do it again. And again. And again. This idea of 'eternal recurrence' is much the same as Connors' experience at Punxsutawney, though he lives only the one day again and again rather than his whole life (would that be better or worse?). The whole point of such a thought experiment is would you embrace the idea or regard it as the most horrible thing you could imagine?

Saturday, 2 February 2008

It's Groundhog Day!

Every year, on February 2nd, the world's media (or rather a small proportion of it) turns its attention to the small town of Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania, USA. In particular they go there to observe a character called Punxsutawney Phil. Phil is a groundhog. But not just any groundhog... Phil is a special groundhog, because legend has it he has an uncanny ability to predict how long winter is going to last. According to his very own website,
"At sunrise, Phil will emerge from his burrow at Gobbler's Knob, and his handlers will announce whether or not Phil has seen his shadow. If Phil sees his shadow, legend has it that we can expect six more weeks of winter weather. No shadow indicates an early spring."
Back in 2001, one guy, an economist, even undertook some kind of analysis of Phil's forecasting data and concluded that over the years he had been around 70% successful and predicting either an early or late Spring.

That's all very well, but the thing that actually interests me about this rather strange tradition is the 1993 movie Groundhog Day that's based around this rather quaint annual event. In the film Bill Murray plays TV weather forecaster Phil Connors who who is assigned to cover the event for something like the third or fourth year running. Connors is, to say the least, fairly cynical about the whole thing and can't wait till the piece is done so he can get the hell out of Punxsutawney and back to civilization. The trouble is, a blizzard means that all routes out of Punxsutawney are blocked and so he has to stay there for a second night. The next morning he is woken up at 6am, just like the morning before, by the same song on the radio (Sonny and Cher's I Got You Babe). He initially thinks that the local radio presenters must have simply forgotten to change the script from the previous morning, but slowly as he goes about his day he realizes that he is actually living the previous day again. It's still Groundhog Day! Eventually the end of the day comes again and he's back in his hotel bed (because just as with the previous day a blizzard prevents him from leaving town). At 6am the next morning he wakes again to the same song on the radio! And so it goes on... every morning he awakes only to relive Groundhog Day. Imagine that! Imagine having to live the same day over and over and over again. Once the realization sets in that no matter what he does, Phil Connors is going to relive the same day again and again he even tries a variety of ways of killing himself... only to find himself waking up at 6am on Groundhog Day to the sound of I Got You Babe. There's no way out.

Eventually Connors resigns himself to the fact he is going to have to relive Groundhog Day ad infinitum, and so starts throwing himself into his recurrent daily activities. By doing this he finds he actually enjoys having the opportunity to relive the events of the day again and again and discovers that he can learn from his earlier encounters with the day's events. The question is, will he ever live to see the day that follows Groundhog Day or is he destined to remain in this day for ever?