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!


  1. Interesting. I am reading it that you believe people can change their luck by having a good attitude. I might be totally off the mark but that is the impression I get.

    Peoples attitude to good or bad luck in their lives is importsnt but someone who has a positive outlook can still suffer trememdous bad luck.They are just able to cope with it better than some.

    Life throws things at us that we cannot control no matter what we do or think.

    Being shot in the arm...lucky.

  2. I think it's very unlucky to get shot in the arm.
    It made me wonder who is the more optimistic person? The one who thinks things could have turned out worse so an arm shot is lucky (which to me is pessimistic thinking of the worst) or the one who thinks things could have turned out better by not getting shot at all!
    Kind of turns everything around doesn't it.

  3. Hi Matt,

    I liked your lecture on luck and chance at Goldsmiths. Up and to the point where you started talking about Wiseman's luck factor book. I didn't want to criticise you publicly at the talk, because I'm not out to win points at your expense, but I think that this book is bad for the image of psychology as it has a snake-oilish quality to it. Fine for a mass-market self-help book, but very bad for science.

    I could make very detailed criticisms of it but this isn't the place. I'll make just two observations. For starters the subtitle is exceptionally misleading "Four simple principles that will change your luck - and your life". The whole book is merely predicated on the measurement of people's "perceived luckiness" not how lucky they actually are, so it is wrong to say that you can change your luck, when in fact the book is merely based on changing perceptions of luckiness.

    The second point is that many of the findings upon which the principles in the book are based are merely correlational and are therefore not causal! However, the book continually assumes that these are causal by suggesting that changing behaviour associated with perceived luckiness is adequate to actually change perceived luckiness and indeed change one's luck.

    According to my understanding of anomalous psychology, misattributing causal links where there are only associations is called "magical thinking", like with voodoo, where we find what Frazer called "sympathetic magic". I respect a lot of the research that Wiseman has conducted but this book is more flaky than a serpent shedding its skin... maybe this is where the snake oil comes in? What can we assume that the public are hoped to understand about science from this book by the appointed "Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology"?

  4. Hi David,

    I assume I'm talking to another 'Luck Doctor' here... Dr Luke? I agree with both your concerns regarding the Luck Factor book: (a) the focus is on perceived luckiness and not luckiness per se; (b) the research is largely correlational, or at least quasi-experimental, and so care needs to be taken about drawing conclusions about causal relationships. These were among the reasons I was fairly cynical about the book myself when it was first published.

    Having said that, as I say I am now drawn to the idea that it is possible to 'control our luck' and that it is very much linked to how we think about things. Perhaps there is room for psychological research that explores this more effectively than the studies conducted by Richard... any ideas for collaboration?

  5. That sounds like a great idea! Us luck doctors should be working together. Richard's research wasn't so much ineffective, he just over-claimed on it in his book, as you note. There's certainly room for a lot more research in this area. I'll get my thinking cap on.

    Thanks for the blog Doctor Luck.

    Dr. Luke

  6. I am becoming increasingly convinced that how you think affects so much in your life, and that can include the extent to which you experience things that we often label as 'good luck'. One part of any future research I'd be interested in conducting in this area would definitely need to be qualitatitve in terms of learning more about people's actual real-life experiences of 'luck'.

    I guess experimental work would need to think of ways in which one could manipulate ways in which people think (not so easy) and find a way of measuring actual changes in 'luck'... hmmm.

  7. Hiya Matt,
    Im a third year psychology student at liverpool hope, and I'm doing my dissertation on luck, and I wondered if there was any way i could get hold of the piece of work you did for your phd the Perceptions of One's Own Luck: The Formation, Maintenance and Consequences of Perceived Luckiness. Also if you've got any recommendations for any reading it would be much appriciated.