Luck II: Expecting White Swans

by fowlertm 6y15th Dec 20137 min read87 comments


When we left off last time, we had discussed two of the four principles which Dr. Richard Wiseman believes accounts for the differences between lucky and unlucky people: do more to maximize the number of chance opportunities you have and take steps to improve your intuition. In this post we will discuss the third principle: expect good luck. We will talk a little about principle four, but it's going to get its own post. 

But before all that, I want to spend the first bit of this post clearing up some of the confusion which resulted from my less-than-perfect presentation. My most persistent critic, Lumifer, made a number of claims which I think are worth addressing.  As I understand it, here is the meat of the criticism:

1) Luck should be defined as the benefit one receives from events they have no control over, not the result of systematic differences between lucky and unlucky people.

2) The luck being discussed in the post was entirely the result of self-perception. More neurotic people are of course going to think themselves less lucky and are going to be less open to novel experiences. Whether or not this is true is another matter.  

3) Related to point 2), perhaps lucky people are simply the people located in the thin strip on the right of a certain bell curve, and so they (naturally) consider themselves lucky. In other words, maybe the arrow of causality is pointing: [objectively lucky] --> [acts differently], rather than the reverse. This point will crop up repeatedly.   

We could argue definitions all day, but let it be known that when I talk about luck I mean the differences between lucky and unlucky people which are a result of differences in their behavior. When I talk about lucky people I mean people who self-describe as lucky and for whom there is weak anecdotal evidence of their luck. After reading Dr. Wiseman's book I have a high confidence level that such behavioral differences exist, a high confidence level that they matter, and a slightly less high confidence level that they can be taught.

Of course, there isn't much a person can do to prevent their being killed by a meteorite, and nothing at all a person can do to stop themselves being born with Down Syndrome. But taken to an extreme, points 2) and 3) seem equivalent to saying that there is simply nothing a person can do to increase the likelihood that they will not be made a fool of by Lady Luck. That seems unwarranted to me, not least because Dr. Wiseman appears to have been able to teach some people the skill of luck.

There are better and worse ways of improving your bench press, better and worse ways of learning a foreign language...why wouldn't there be better and worse ways of improving the odds that you'll be exposed to positive random events (or, alternatively, decreasing the odds that you'll be exposed to negative randomness)?  I think this case is bolstered by the fact that, at least according to the testimony of lucky people, their good fortune is spread out among many different areas of their life. It would be one thing if these 'lucky' people had gotten a break in their career or lucked out in their choice of marriage partners, but many of them seem to be lucky almost across the board.  This still doesn't rule out pure, unadulterated chance, but I think it makes person-specific causes more plausible.  

Granted, Dr. Wiseman's evidence comes mostly in the form of anecdotes, which is not particularly strong evidence. But it's more than no evidence. Establishing that people who think they are lucky really are objectively lucky at anything like p < .05 would require a monumental longitudinal study which, to my knowledge, no one has even come close to doing. Nevertheless, it's my impression that Dr. Wiseman made an honest effort at epistemic cleanliness, utilizing numerous questionnaires, tests, interviews, and actual experiments to tease apart causal threads, establishing that there may well be behaviors which lead to more luck.

It's not a mathematical proof, but I think there is a good dose of truth to it, and I think it's useful.

With that out of the way, you'll recall that the four principles and twelve sub-principles are:


Principle One: Maximize the number of chance opportunities you have in life.

  sub-principle one: lucky people maintain a network of contacts with other people.

  sub-principle two: lucky people are more relaxed and less neurotic than unlucky people

  sub-principle three: lucky people have a strong drive towards novelty, and strive to introduce variety into their routines.

Principle Two: Use your intuition to make important decisions.

  sub-principle one: pay attention to your hunches.

  sub-principle two: try and make your intuition more accurate.

Principle Three: Expect good fortune.  

  sub-principle one: lucky people believe their luck will continue.

  sub-principle two: lucky people attempt to achieve their goals and persist through difficulty.

  sub-principle three: lucky people think their interactions will be positive and successful.

Principle Four: Turn bad luck into good.

  sub-principle one: lucky people see the silver lining in bad situations.

  sub-principle two: lucky people believe that things will work out for them in the long run.

  sub-principle three: lucky people spend less time brooding over bad luck.

  sub-principle four: lucky people are more proactive in learning from their mistakes and preventing further bad luck.   


Great Expectations

If you look at principle three and four, you'll see that most of the sub-principles have to do with what lucky people think will happen in the future. When given a set of questionnaires which tested respondents belief that they would experience positive and negative events in the future, we again find stark differences between lucky and unlucky people. Overwhelmingly, lucky people were more likely than unlucky people to believe they would have a good time on vacation, be admired for their accomplishments, develop good relationships with their families, etc. Conversely, unlucky people were more likely to believe that they would become overweight later in life, decide that they’d chosen the wrong career, be mugged, etc. 

Maybe this is straight forward inductive inference: if you've mostly had bad or good luck in the past, it makes sense to believe that this will continue into the future. But if psychology were this crisp and simple, life would be a lot easier. Besides all the heuristics and biases that cloud thinking, our expectations about the future feed back into the causal matrix which determines our behaviors, influencing both what actually happens to us as well as how we interpret what happens to us. Each of these will be important to our discussion.

Making self-fulfillment work for you (?)

So what results when two groups of people vary in terms of their expectations for the future if we grant that these expectations exert some influence (however small) on what happens to them? 

Dr. Wiseman believes that lucky people's positive expectations account for the fact that they are often very persistent in the face of adversity, and that this leads to self-fulfilling prophecies of success. When he gave three lucky and three unlucky people a very difficult puzzle to solve, two of the lucky people spent significantly longer working on the puzzle than the unlucky people, around 20 minutes vs. 1 hour +, respectively. (one of the lucky people miscounted the number of puzzle pieces and, believing one to be missing and thus the puzzle to be impossible, didn't even begin)! Quotes from interviews with lucky and unlucky people offer evidence that lucky people often spend more time chasing their ambitions while unlucky people have in some cases stopped even trying.  

But are lucky people more persistent because of their beliefs that the future is bright, or could it be the case that lucky people were simply more persistent as a matter of their personal psychology? 

A more clear-cut example comes from the realm of interpersonal interaction. Here, it turns out, we have good evidence for the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. Several famous studies have demonstrated that the beliefs you have when you enter into an interaction can profoundly shape the course of that interaction. Dougherty et al., (1994) found that, when people interviewing candidates for a job had high expectations for the candidates, they were friendly, and the candidates thus made a better impression. Still more powerfully, Snyder et al., (1977) demonstrated that when men thought they were talking to an attractive woman, not only did they act more warmly towards the woman, and not only did she respond more sociably, but other people listening to only the woman's part of the conversation also thought she was more attractive. 

Did Dr. Wiseman's research yield any new insights into this area? Anecdotes included in the book paint a picture of lucky people's ability to quickly form warm and close relationships with people, allegedly on the basis of their expectations that other people will be interesting, funny, etc. 

Perhaps lucky people's beliefs that their interactions will be positive actually lead to positive interactions, and independent research indicates that there is something to this. But recall from my last post that lucky people also smile, make better eye contact, and have friendlier body language than unlucky people, and maybe this accounts for their good experiences with people. Or they could have just always been lucky with respect to their interactions and thus believe this state of affairs will continue. Unfortunately, I feel that Dr. Wiseman's work did little to clarify these underlying issues.

That said, I do think that there are two valuable things to learn here: 1) don't give up hope too early, and 2) people's expectations of others powerfully influence how their interactions unfold. 

Remember how during the last essay I said that some people may worry that principle one ('maximize the number of chance opportunities you have') might also expose you to a lot of black swans? Well, persistence is one reason why this isn't such a big problem. With enough hard work, a gray or even black swan encounter can be made into a white swan (though I freely admit any rational person has to know when to give up). There is a bigger reason than this, though, but it'll have to wait for the next post because this one has gotten long enough. 

Suggested Exercises 

As with the first two principles, Dr. Wiseman recommends the following exercises:

-Begin each day with positive affirmations, of the "I know that I will be lucky in the future" variety.

-Make a list of your short, medium, and long-term goals, reviewing the list periodically. This helps establish high expectations for the future.

-To maintain motivation, write down the costs and benefits associated with achieving a goal. Having a concrete analysis to look at should help you persist, assuming that the benefits actually do outweigh the costs.

-With a potentially difficult situation on the horizon, like a date or job interview, spend a few minutes visualizing yourself confidently and successfully navigating it.

Criticisms and open questions

I'll come right out and say it: I thought this section was weaker than the others, and less useful to readers of this blog. There's so much mushy-headed nonsense out there about how 'perception is reality' and you should 'visualize your way into wealth' that when I read the the title of principle three ('expect good luck') my eyes glazed over a bit.

Still. Goals, emotions, expectations. These are as much a part of the fabric of the world as chairs are, and we can no more ignore them than we can any of the other threads in that tapestry. If it is true that what I will think will happen affects what will happen, even if those expectations aren't based on anything particularly rational, then I want to believe that that is the case, and plan my life accordingly.

So I ask:

1) Might there be domains where there is a slight negative expected utility for accuracy of belief, at least at the levels of rationality attainable by humans now (see: discussions of the valley of bad rationality)? For a true master of the mature art of human rationality, a person who has a detailed self-model and very accurate probability estimates, there would presumably be no reason to fiddle with expectations; these would flow naturally from their beliefs about the world. But since I don't yet have anything like that, maybe it's a good idea for me to purposefully try to make myself believe that the future will be good.

2) Can a person have a belief in self-fulfilling belief? If you know about self-fulfilling prophecies, does that make you better or worse at making them happen? 

3) Let's say I'm an objectively, physically unattractive person, but because of positive attention I received during childhood I believe myself to be attractive and thus have moderate success in dating. Is my belief in my own attractiveness warranted? Does the answer change if, instead of being based on childhood experiences, I believe I'm attractive because I chanted "I am attractive and deserving of love" ten times before I left the house every morning?

4) Is it ethical to exploit this knowledge, even if you're doing it to make another person more successful? When, if ever, is it appropriate to put down the mantle of rationality and let people believe silly things (or even actively encourage them)? One possible example: when giving a pep talk to beleaguered troops in the minutes before a battle.