Luck, Psychology and Judgements
I have been thinking a lot this week about luck and circumstance. We sometimes feel we are generally lucky, sometimes unlucky and sometimes don’t consider the role luck plays in our lives as much as we should. Generally, we’re really bad at working out what is our own doing and what is down to the situation we are in, and even worse at estimating what will happen in the future. But what insights can the study of psychology offer?
Luck, judgement and probabilities
Some of the reason for this include the fact that we are (exceptionally!) bad at working with probabilities – or rather we use lots of thinking tricks and short-cuts which can lead us astray. We also tend to under or overestimate the effect the situation and context (which contains random events which help or hinder – i.e. luck) play in our outcomes.
Here’s an example: Imagine I asked you to quickly guess how often a coin toss would come up heads in two situations – first when the last twenty tosses had come up tails, and secondly if the previous twenty had been heads. If your initial gut instinct is that it would be more than an even chance in the first instance, and less the even in the second, then you wouldn’t be alone. However, as we know when we step back and think some more, it is still 50% – the odds of the coin coming up heads is unaffected by all the previous, independent events. This effect is reflected in the ‘gamblers’ fallacy‘, the belief that a run of bad outcomes in the past increases the likelihood of a good outcome next time – as ‘we must be due’. The laws of probability, however, are not noted for keeping score or being fair in such matters!
A feeling that one is luckier than others is also reflected in a related idea called optimistic bias. This is the belief that the odds of us gaining positive outcomes is higher than that of the average population. Likewise, we also think we are less likely to incur negative ones. My own experience of this was in the purchase of my first car – a model which was fun to drive, but had a well known, and common, engine fault which could render the car permanently defunct. Despite this dire possibility I reckoned it wouldn’t happen to me, and bought the car. In the end, I did get the negative outcome (although it didn’t total the car, quite)! A colleague of mine (Prof Ian Albery – Hi Ian!) has tells me this effect persists even amongst patients in hospice wards- when surveyed, such people felt they were less little to die in the following week than their peers, despite objective evidence to the contrary.
and the rest….
We also often underestimate the role of situational factors in our own behaviors, decisions and achievements. We also have a real tendency to attribute our own successes to ourselves (I did this, and it went great!) and failures to the situation (all these situational factors were against me!). As a result, we vastly underestimate the role luck plays in our successes. Ironically, we are also likely to think things will all go our way when planning for the future- you can read more about this effect in my first ever blog here, a tale of two biases)
It’s not all bad news though, and perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to try to be more accurate. As a species, our tendency to try new things has been a key part of our success. Thinking you are more likely to succeed than perhaps is realistic is likely to be linked to this drive. Likewise, attributing ones success to ones own efforts, and discounting failures to situations is pretty good news for your self-esteem. So, lets try and be a bit more accurate in our judgments, but perhaps not too much!
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