feeling lucky, punk?

Two nights ago, a black cat crossed my path. Unlucky?

Yes for him. I was on my bike at the time, and another cat chased him out of some bushes at high speed. He crashed into my foot, my pedal and my back wheel. I jammed on the brakes as he sprinted off up the road on 3 legs. I went after him, going ‘puss puss puss’. When I found him he seemed shaken but was too proud to accept my ministrations.

Then yesterday, I was having lunch, and the restaurant had the character fu for good fortune stuck on the wall.

It’s one of those rare characters where the components actually mean something. The thing on the left is a person. One the right there is a horizontal line above a box, above a box with a cross in it. These are the characters for the number one, a mouth, and a field. So the character describes fortune as a person who has a field and only one mouth to feed.

They often put the character on the wall upside down, because the expression for ‘upside down’ ‘dao le‘ sounds like the expression for ‘has come’ which is also dao le.

We were talking about luck.

So I did some academic research.

The term implies the laws of probability are bent:

– a lucky streak, in which normal odds don’t apply
– a lucky person, to whom normal odds don’t apply
– an unlucky event after which normal odds don’t apply (e.g. breaking a mirror)
– a lucky charm affects an area around it, in which normal odds don’t apply

But luck, or belieivng in luck can’t really affect reality, right?

A study had students in three groups think about being lucky, unlucky or nothing (control) before taking on an anagram-solving problem (Jiang et al, 2006). Those students who thought about luck (whether good or bad) did worse than the control group, because they felt the results were outside of their control. Reference.

So is believing in luck unlucky? Professor Richard Wiseman reckons not:

In writing his book about luck, he asked participants to count the number of photographs in a sample newspaper, and subjects who had described themselves as “lucky” were much more likely to notice a message on page two, disguised as a half-page advertisement with large block letters: STOP COUNTING–THERE ARE 43 PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS NEWSPAPER.

A few pages later, there was another massive advert — I mean, we’re talking big — that said, STOP COUNTING. TELL THE EXPERIMENTER YOU’VE SEEN THIS AND WIN 150 POUNDS. The poor ‘unlucky’ people tended to not spot this one either.

His theory is that you can make your own luck: for example the guy he met who keeps a jar for coins he finds on the street and fills it up regularly, because he is primed for the idea of finding money.

And lucky people are incurably optimistic about their luck: “Lucky people are more likely to look on the bright side of ‘bad’ encounters. In a mental exercise describing being shot during a bank robbery, lucky people considered themselves lucky not to have been killed while unlucky people considered themselves unlucky to have been shot.”

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do you punk?”

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

3 thoughts on “feeling lucky, punk?”

  1. Interesting- Wiseman makes it seem similar the old optimism/pessimism chestnut. Can you consider yourself lucky but still be pessimistic about outcomes?


  2. Interesting notion – I play Blackjack at the Casino. There is roughly a 50/50 chance of winning each hand (actually, it’s more like 48-52 in favour of the Casino, but you get the point).

    However, a truly random sample of events (such as who will win the hand if I play the optimum odds on when to hit or stand) results in clusters as opposed to even distribution. That is, it is a lot more likely that there will be runs of wins and losses as opposed to alternating wins and losses.

    So from this perspective, although the Casino has the advantage of long-term odds, I try and play in the short-medium term to get onto one of these winning runs (obviously capping my maximum stake and walking away if need be).

    Over the last 10 years or so, I have won more than I have lost in Blackjack. However, as this is a ‘long-term’ scenario, I should be down according to probability. Should I consider myself ‘lucky’ – or put it down to stop-loss strategy?


  3. Reminds me of placebos. They are highly effective. They have done effective placebo surgery. Give a child a lolly and tell them it’s medicine and it gets rid of the headache. Or, give me a paracetamol and AS i swallow it, my headaches is gone. It doesn’t work that fast- but i believe my pain will be relieved by it.
    so, your placebo is the belief in good luck and it does change the outcome


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