• How to make yourself luckier: The problem with Wiseman’s methodology

    09/27 2012

    The great Eric Barker recently wrote a lengthy post on Lifehacker about how to make yourself luckier. He collected a lot of good, solid research: some individuals are accident-prone;  superstition can be performance-enhancing. He also repeated the research from Richard Wiseman’s book, The Luck Factor, which looked at four main principles of luck: 

    Be open to more opportunities, interact with a large network of people, break routines and keep a relaxed attitude toward life.

    “The results were dramatic: eighty percent were happier and more satisfied with their lives—and luckier,” Wiseman summed. 

    According to Wiseman, people who follow his advice report an increase in how much luck they experience. Lots of reviewers on the Amazon page seem to agree! But no one mentions the elephant in the room, and the one key element in this research that skews everything: the confirmation bias. When people start believing in one thing—for example, that they’re doing things that will enhance their luck—they begin paying more attention to the events that make that belief true. If you self-identify as a Republican or a Democrat, you do this, too. We dismiss news that falls outside of our worldview.

    Confirmation biases are effects in information processing, distinct from the behavioral confirmation effect, also called “self-fulfilling prophecy”, in which people’s expectations affect their behaviour to make the expectations come true. Some psychologists use “confirmation bias” to refer to any way in which people avoid rejecting a belief, whether in searching for evidence, interpreting it, or recalling it from memory. Others restrict the term to selective collection of evidence. 

    In the case of Wiseman’s research, people became luckier throughout the course of the study while they kept so-called luck journals, detailing fortuitous events. People who are given a journal by a researcher and are told to start writing down everything lucky that happens to them are, by definition, going to pay more attention to those lucky events. They’ll start interpreting more things that go their way as being “lucky.”

    The act of paying attention to something and writing it down can cause many effects in the outcome of the study, including the subject-expectancy effect.

    The subject-expectancy effect, is a form of reactivity that occurs in scientific experiments or medical treatments when a research subject or patient expects a given result and therefore unconsciously affects the outcome, or reports the expected result.

    Because this effect can significantly bias the results of experiments (especially on human subjects), double-blind methodology is used to eliminate the effect.

    In other words, when both the researcher and the subjects expect that people will report an increase in luck, their behaviors conform to this. There are so many terms that refer to similar effects, but Wiseman never mentions this in his book. In truth, you don’t need to follow his four pieces of advice to become luckier: to get the sensation that your luck is improving, all you need to do is keep a luck journal.

    Are the subjects in Wiseman’s study actually luckier, or do they just feel luckier? To some extent, it doesn’t matter. Believing that you’re lucky, for example, can have lots of positive social benefits, and having access to more social capital can lead to more opportunities.

  • Think Friday the 13th is unlucky? Keep it to yourself

    07/13 2012

    It can be fun to join in the watercooler talk and blame every little thing that goes wrong today on the fact that it’s Friday the 13th. But here’s a great luck secret: don’t say anything.

    Unlucky When everything is going your way, you’re socially attractive. People want to hang out with you. You’ve got “it,” and are in a key position to key lots of opportunities.

    On the other hand, being the victim of bad luck is also contagious. Just mentioning the words “bad luck” can do some damage to the perception that other people have of you. It sounds irrational, yes, but welcome to the world of dealing with people.

    Kristina Olson, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, studied the social effects of good luck and bad luck. As it turns out, we’re unbelievably to the “just world” hypothesis, a bias that makes us believe that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.

    Even if the layoffs at your company were done at random, the “just world” hypothesis makes us believe that the people left standing deserve it more. Did you get your report stuck in the copier? Maybe it was a technical matter beyond your control, but subconsciously we’re prone to believing that you’re technically inept and (gulp!) deserved it in some way.

    Playing the lovable underdog who believes in bad luck–and then points it out–actually backfires, since we’re subconsciously.prone to believe that people bring on their own bad fortune.

    In Olson’s study, her subjects liked lucky characters (who found five dollars on the ground) almost as much as they liked people who did good, intentional acts. Even friends of the unlucky were affected.

    Think it’s just because of a lifetime of social conditioning? Think again: her subjects were five years old. “Children are just as irrational as adults,” says Olson.

    I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling like today might be my lucky day.
  • Neighborhood Watch/The Watch: Bad timing, bad luck

    05/05 2012

    Four of my favorite comedic actors, Richard Ayoade, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill, are teaming up this summer for the feature film The Watch.

    (If you don’t know who Richard Ayoade is, go watch The IT Crowd, or this clip in which he demonstrates his enthusiasm for soccer.)

    All of this wouldn’t matter at all, if it weren’t for the fact that community watch participant George Zimmerman was a free man for nearly a month after having gunned down Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, even after the police told Zimmerman to stop following Martin. (He’s now on trial for second-degree murder.)

    In the right setting—and here, I’m talking about a version of the ’50s that only exists on TV and collective nostalgia—the idea of a Neighborhood Watch is a comforting thing, the kind of thing that my grandparents would have taken part in. But when you add Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law and the U.S.’s lax gun laws, it’s a wonder that this doesn’t happen more often–or at least, that it isn’t reported in the media when it does happen.

    The core concept of a neighborhood watch is about knowing your surroundings so well that you can detect when something is amiss. Science fiction has always played with fear of the other: its ability to contaminate, destroy, and pollute our world and way of life. District 9 cleverly, clearly showed one possible depiction of aliens-as-a-lesser-being, forced into ghettos reminiscent of concentration camps.

    The film Neighborhood Watch recently changed its name to The Watch, specifically to distance itself from the shooting.

    There’s no way anyone could have predicted the bad luck that the movie was going to have. But without pre-existing branding to worry about-it’s not like Neighborhood Watch was a series of comics everyone loved–sometimes, any change is better than bad luck by association.

  • Can you get stabbed in the head AND be lucky?

    04/19 2012

    On April 17th, 28-year-old police offer Eder Loor was stabbed in the left temple with a three-inch switchblade while on duty in East Harlem. In other words, this entire blade was inside of his brain:

    (Photo from ABC News)

    Was he lucky?

    A lot of commenters around the internet balk at the idea that you could be stabbed in the head and lucky at the same time. But Dr. Joshua Bederson, the neurosurgeon who operated on Loor, called him “a very lucky man.”

    I agree with Dr. Bederson, because a) agreeing with the head of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center on an issue involving his own patient is a safe bet, b) he reminds me, slightly, of David Cross, and c) YES, SWEET JESUS, THE GUY WAS LUCKY.

    “It was a millimeter from everything,” Dr. Bederson said. “It was ridiculous.”

    No one will argue with the fact that getting stabbed in the head is very, very unlucky. According to FBI statistics for 2010, the last year full stats were available, there were 778,901 aggravated assaults in the country, 19% of which involved “knives or cutting instruments.” That’s about 147,992 stabbings–but I’ll assume that not all of those people took a 3″ blade to the head.

    The point is that there are no statistics that tell us how many people were stabbed in the head and managed to escape any serious side effects. (When Loor awoke after surgery, he had full mobility in his extremities, intact vision, and normal speech.) Without knowing the exact figures, it’s rare to get stabbed in the head. But among people who get stabbed in the head, this kind of recovery is even more rare.

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