Saturday, April 18, 2009

Professor Richard Wiseman

A ten-year scientific study into the nature of luck has revealed that, to a large extent,
people make their own good and bad fortune. The results also show that it is
possible to enhance the amount of luck that people encounter in their lives.

a friend. Just by chance, Bandura and his friend
found themselves playing behind two attractive female
golfers, and soon joined them as a foursome.
After the game, Bandura arranged to meet up with
one of the women again, and eventually ended up
marrying her. A chance meeting on a golf course
altered his entire life.
In short, lucky events exert a dramatic influence
over our lives. Luck has the power to transform the
improbable into the possible, to make the difference
between life and death, reward and ruin, happiness
and despair.

People have searched for an effective way of improving
the good fortune in their lives for many
centuries. Lucky charms, amulets, and talismans
have been found in virtually all civilizations
throughout recorded history. Touching (“knocking
on”) wood dates back to pagan rituals that were designed
to elicit the help of benign and powerful tree
gods. The number thirteen is seen as unlucky because
there were thirteen people at Christ's last supper.
When a ladder is propped up against a wall it
forms a natural triangle which used to be seen as
symbolic of the Holy Trinity. To walk under the
ladder would break the Trinity and therefore bring
ill fortune.
Many of these beliefs and behaviors are still with
us. In 1996, the Gallup Organization asked 1,000
Americans whether they were superstitious. Fifty
three percent of people said that they were at least a
little superstitious, and 25 percent admitted to being
somewhat or very superstitious. Another survey

revealed that 72 percent of the public said that they
possessed at least one good luck charm. Superstitious
beliefs and behaviors have been passed down
from generation to generation. Our parents told us
about them and we will pass them on to our children.
But why do they persist? I believe that the
answer lies in the power of luck. Throughout history,
people have recognized that good and bad luck
can transform lives. A few seconds of ill fortune
can lay waste years of striving, and moments of
good luck can save an enormous amount of hard
work. Superstition represents people’s attempts to
control and enhance this most elusive of factors.
And the enduring nature of these superstitions beliefs
and behaviors reflects the extent of people’s
desire to find ways of increasing their good luck. In
short, superstitions were created, and have survived,
because they promise that most elusive of holy
grails – a way of enhancing good fortune.

There is just one problem. Superstition doesn’t
work. Several researchers have also tested the validity
of these age-old beliefs and found them wanting.
My favorite experiment into the topic was a
rather strange study conducted by high school student
(and member of the New York Skeptics) Mark
Levin. In some countries, a black cat crossing your
path is seen as lucky, in other countries it is seen as
unlucky. Levin wanted to discover whether people’s
luck really changed when a black cat crossed
their path. To find out, he asked two people to try
their luck at a simple coin tossing game. Next, a
black cat was encouraged to walk across their path,
and the participants then played the coin tossing
game a second time. As a “control” condition,
Levin also repeated the experiment using a white,
rather than a black, cat. After much coin tossing
and cat crossing, Levin concluded that neither the
black or white cat had any effect on participants’
luck. Also, skeptics have regularly staged events in
which they have broken well-known superstitions,
such as walking under ladders and smashing mirrors
– all have survived the ordeals intact.
A few years ago I decided to put the power of lucky
charms to the test by empirically evaluating the actual
effect that they have on people’s luck, lives,
and happiness. I asked a group of volunteers to
complete various standardized questionnaires measuring
their levels of life satisfaction, happiness, and
luck. Next, they were asked to carry a lucky charm
with them and to monitor the effect that it had on
their lives. The charms had been purchased from a
New Age center and promised to enhance good fortune,
wealth, and happiness. After a few weeks
everyone in the group was asked to indicate the effect
that the charms had had on their lives. Overall,
there was absolutely no effect in terms of how satisfied
they were with their lives, how
happy they were, or how lucky they felt.
Interestingly, a few participants thought
that they had been especially unlucky,
and seemed somewhat relieved that they
could now return the charms.

Superstition doesn’t work because it is based on
outdated and incorrect thinking. It comes from a
time when people thought that luck was a strange
force that could only be controlled by magical rituals
and bizarre behaviors.
Ten years ago I decided to take a more scientific
investigation into the concept of luck. I decided
that the best method was to examine why some people
are consistently lucky whilst others encounter
little but ill fortune. In short, why some people
seem to live charmed lives full of lucky breaks and
chance encounters, while others experience one disaster
after another.
I placed advertisements in national newspapers and
magazines, asking for people who considered themselves
exceptionally lucky or unlucky to contact me.
Over the years, 400 extraordinary men and women
have volunteered to participate in my research; the
youngest eighteen, a student, the oldest eighty-four,
a retired accountant. They were drawn from all
walks of life – businessmen, factory workers, teachers,
housewives, doctors, secretaries, and salespeople.
All were kind enough to let me put their lives
and minds under the microscope.
Superstition comes from a time when people
thought that luck was a strange force that
could only be controlled by magical rituals
and bizarre behaviors.

Jessica, a forty-two-year-old forensic scientist, is
typical of lucky people in the group. She is currently
in a long-term relationship with a man who
she met completely by chance at a dinner party. In
fact, good fortune has helped her achieve many of
her lifelong ambitions. As she once explained to
me, “I have my dream job, two wonderful children,
and a great guy that I love very much. It’s amazing,
when I look back at my life I realize that I have
been lucky in just about every area.” In contrast,
the unlucky participants have not been so fortunate.
Patricia, twenty-seven, has experienced bad luck
throughout much of her life. A few years ago, she
started to work as cabin crew for an airline, and
quickly gained a reputation as being accident-prone
and a bad omen. One of her first flights had to
make an unplanned stop-over because some passengers
had become drunk and abusive. Another of
Patricia’s flights was struck by lightning, and just
weeks later a third flight was forced
to make an emergency landing.
Patricia was also convinced that her
ill fortune could be transferred to
others and so never wished people
good luck, because this had caused
them to fail important interviews and
exams. She is also unlucky in love
and has staggered from one broken
relationship to the next. Patricia
never seems to get any lucky breaks
and always seems to be in the wrong
place at the wrong time.
Over the years I have interviewed these volunteers,
asked them to complete diaries, personality questionnaires,
and intelligence tests, and invited them
to my laboratory to participate in experiments. The
findings have revealed that luck is not a magical
ability or the result of random chance. Nor are people
born lucky or unlucky. Instead, although lucky
and unlucky people have almost no insight into the
real causes of their good and bad luck, their
thoughts and behavior are responsible for much of
their fortune.
My research revealed that lucky people generate
their own good fortune via four basic principles.
They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities,
make lucky decisions by listening to
their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via
positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude
that transforms bad luck into good.

Take the case of chance opportunities. Lucky people
consistently encounter such opportunities
whereas unlucky people do not. I carried out a very
simple experiment to discover whether this was due
to differences in their ability to spot such opportunities.
I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper,
and asked them to look through it and tell me
how many photographs were inside. On average,
the unlucky people took about two minutes to count
the photographs whereas the lucky people took just
seconds. Why? Because the second page of the
newspaper contained the message “Stop counting –
There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This
message took up half of the page and was written in
type that was over two inches high. It was staring
everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people
tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot
it. Just for fun, I placed a second large message half
way through the newspaper. This one announced:
“Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen
this and win $250.” Again, the unlucky people
missed the opportunity because they were still too
busy looking for photographs.
Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are
generally much more tense and anxious than lucky
people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts
people’s ability to notice the unexpected. In one
experiment, people were asked to watch a moving
dot in the center of a computer screen. Without
warning, large dots would occasionally be flashed at
the edges of the screen. Nearly all participants noticed
these large dots. The experiment was then
repeated with a second group of people, who were
offered a large financial reward for accurately
watching the center dot. This time, people were far
more anxious about the whole situation. They became
very focused on the center dot and over a third
of them missed the large dots when they appeared
on the screen.

Lucky people generate their own good fortune
via four basic principles. They are skilled at
creating and noticing chance opportunities,
make lucky decisions by listening to their
intuition, create self-fulfilling prohesies
via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient
attitude that transforms bad luck into good.
The harder they looked, the less they saw. And so it
is with luck – unlucky people miss chance opportunities
because they are too focused on looking for
something else. They go to parties intent on finding
their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to
make good friends. They look through newspapers
determined to find certain type of job advertisements
and as a result miss other types of jobs.
Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore
see what is there rather than just what they are
looking for.
But this is only part of the story when it comes to
chance opportunities. Many of my lucky participants
went to considerable lengths to introduce variety
and change into their lives. Before making an
important decision, one lucky participant would
constantly alter his route to work. Another person
described a special technique that he had developed
to force him to meet different types of people. He
had noticed that whenever he went to a party, he
tended to talk to the same type of people. To help
disrupt this routine, and make life more fun, he
thinks of a color before he arrives at the party and
then chooses to only speak to people wearing that
color of clothing at the party! At some parties he
only spoke to women in red, at another he chatted
exclusively to men in black.
Although it may seem strange, under certain circumstances,
this type of behavior will actually increase
the amount of chance opportunities in people’s
lives. Imagine living in the center of a large
apple orchard. Each day you have to venture into
the orchard and collect a large basket of apples.
The first few times it won’t matter where you decide
to visit. All parts of the orchard will have apples
and so you will be able to find them wherever
you go. But as time goes on it will become more
and more difficult to find apples in the places that
you have visited before. And the more you return to
the same locations, the harder it will be to find apples
there. But if you decide to always go to parts
of the orchard that you have never visited before, or
even randomly decide where to go, your chances of
finding apples will be dramatically increased. And
it is exactly the same with luck. It is easy for people
to exhaust the opportunities in their life. Keep on
talking to the same people in the same way. Keep
taking the same route to and from work. Keep going
to the same places on vacation. But new or
even random experiences introduce the potential for
new opportunities.

But a lucky life is not just about creating and noticing
chance opportunities. Another important principle
revolved around the way in which lucky and
unlucky people dealt with the ill fortune in their
lives. Imagine being chosen to represent your country
in the Olympic games. You compete in the
games, do very well, and win a bronze medal. How
happy do you think that would feel? Most of us
would, I suspect, be overjoyed and proud of our
achievement. Now imagine turning the clock back
and competing at the same Olympic games a second
time. This time you do even better and win a silver
medal. How happy do you think you would feel
now? Most of us think that we would feel happier
after winning the silver medal than the bronze. This
is not surprising. After all, the medals are a reflection
of our performance, and the silver medal indicates
a better performance than a bronze medal.
But research suggests that athletes who win bronze
medals are actually happier than those who win silver
medals. And the reason for this has to do with
the way in which the athletes think about their performance.
The silver medalists focus on the notion
that if they had performed slightly better, then they
would have perhaps won a gold medal. In contrast,
the bronze medalists focus on the thought that if
they had performed slightly worse, then they wouldn’t
have won anything at all. Psychologists refer to
our ability to imagine what might have happened,
rather than what actually did happen, as “counterfactual.”
I wondered whether lucky people might be using
counter-factual thinking to soften the emotional impact
of the ill fortune that they experienced in their
lives. To find out, I decided to present lucky and
unlucky people with some unlucky scenarios and
see how they reacted. I asked lucky and unlucky
people to imagine that they were waiting to be
served in a bank. Suddenly, an armed robber enters
the bank, fires a shot, and the bullet hits them in the
arm. Would this event be lucky or unlucky?
Unlucky people tended to say that this would be
enormously unlucky and it would be just their bad
luck to be in the bank during the robbery. In contrast,
lucky people viewed the scenario as being far
luckier, and often spontaneously commented on
how the situation could have been far worse. As
one lucky participant commented, “It’s lucky because
you could have been shot in the head – also,

you could sell your story to the newspapers and
make some money.”
The differences between the lucky and unlucky people
were striking. Lucky people tend to imagine
spontaneously how the bad luck they encounter
could have been worse and, in doing so, they feel
much better about themselves and their lives. This,
in turn, helps keep their expectations about the future
high, and, increases the likelihood of them continuing
to live a lucky life.

I wondered whether the principles uncovered during
my work could be used to increase the amount of
good luck that people encounter in their lives. To
find out, I created “luck school” – a series of experiments
examining whether people’s luck can be enhanced
by getting them to think and behave like a
lucky person.
The project comprised two main parts. In the first
part I met up with participants on a one-to-one basis,
and asked them to complete standard questionnaires
measuring their luck and how satisfied they
were with six major areas of their life. I then described
the four main principles of luck, explained
how lucky people used these to create good fortune
in their lives, and described simple techniques designed
to help them think and behave like a lucky
person. For example, as I noted earlier, without realizing
it, lucky people tend to use various techniques
to create chance opportunities that surround
them, how to break daily routines, and also how to
deal more effectively with bad luck by imagining
how things could have been worse. I asked my volunteers
to spend a month carrying out exercises and
then return and describe what had happened.
The results were dramatic. Eighty percent of people
were now happier, more satisfied with their lives,
and, perhaps most important of all, luckier.
Unlucky people had become lucky, and lucky people
had become even luckier. At the start of the article
I described the unlucky life of Patricia. She
was one of the first people to take part in Luck
School. After a few weeks carrying out some simple
exercises, her bad luck had completely vanished.
At the end of the course, Patricia cheerfully explained
that she felt like a completely different person.
She was no longer accident-prone and was
much happier with her life. For once, everything
was working out her way. Other volunteers had
found romantic partners through chance
encounters and job promotions simply through
lucky breaks.

After ten years of scientific research my work has
revealed a radically new way of looking at luck and
the vital role that plays in our lives. It demonstrates
that much of the good and bad fortune we encounter
is a result of our thoughts and behavior. More important,
it represents the potential for change, and
has produced that most elusive of holy grails – an
effective way of increasing the luck people experience
in their daily lives.
The project has also demonstrated how skepticism
can play a positive role in people’s lives. The research
is not simply about debunking superstitious
thinking and behavior. Instead, it is about encouraging
people to move away from a magical way of
thinking and toward a more rational view of luck.
Perhaps most important of all, it is about using science
and skepticism to increase the level of luck,
happiness, and success in people’s lives.

Professor Richard Wiseman
Richard Wiseman is a psychologist at the University
of Hertfordshire and a CSICOP fellow. Email: R. This article is based on his
new book The Luck Factor, published in April 2003
by Talk Books. Web site:
The Magazine For Science And Reason
Volume 27, No.3 ~ May/June 2003

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മതങ്ങള്‍ മണ്ണടിയട്ടെ ! മനുഷ്യര്‍ ഒന്നാകട്ടെ !!
ഒരു ബഹുമതസമൂഹത്തില്‍ വിവിധ മതവിശ്വാസികള്‍ക്ക് പരസ്പരസ്നേഹത്തോടെയും വിശ്വാസത്തോടെയും സമാധാനപരമായി ജീവിക്കാന്‍ കഴിയണമെങ്കില്‍ മതപരമായ സങ്കുചിതത്വം വെടിഞ്ഞ് വിശാലമായി ചിന്തിക്കാ‍ന്‍ എല്ലാ വിഭാഗങ്ങള്‍ക്കും കഴിയണം. ന്യൂനപക്ഷങ്ങള്‍ കുറെക്കൂടി യാഥാര്‍ത്ഥ്യബോധത്തോടെ പെരുമാറാന്‍ പരിശീലിക്കുകയും വേണം. ചിന്ത വിശാലമാകണമെങ്കില്‍ തുറന്ന സംവാദങ്ങളും ചര്‍ച്ചകളും നടക്കേണ്ടതുണ്ട്.