The science of luck - Hindustan Times
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The science of luck

BySukanya Datta
Jul 27, 2023 04:55 PM IST

Studies are finding the difference between lucky and unlucky is quantifiable. It boils down to how we perceive the world of information around us. Take a look.

Success used to simply mean survival. Then it came to include community, property, family. Still later, career, assets, leisure.

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(Adobe Stock)

Through it all, some things have remained constant. There are people who seem to find success more easily. Opportunities race towards them. Hurdles melt away. They are, in a word, lucky.

Assuming more or less equal degrees of wealth, intelligence, access, effort and ambition, what makes some “luckier” than others? Is there a formula to good fortune?

It boils down, scientists are finding, to how the individual perceives and processes the world of information around them.

In his book, Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life (1995), German-American philosopher Nicholas Rescher defines “luck” as an umbrella term for all that lies beyond the limits of our cognitive and practical control.

Our ideas of luck, and our preoccupation with it — think of the rites, superstitions and deities designed to invite better luck — stem from the fact that we are “agents of limited knowledge who do and must make our decisions in the light of incomplete information”, Rescher writes.

Here’s where the difference between seemingly similar people comes in.

Not everyone is gathering the same information in the same context. Is that what makes one unlucky; or does the idea that one is unlucky discourage hypervigilance? The jury is still out on that one. But numerous studies suggest that the levels of vigilance — more of what is called an attentional spotlight, less of what is termed inattentional blindness — are key.

In one such experiment, conducted over 10 years starting in the early 1990s, British psychologist Richard J Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in the UK put out advertisements in newspapers, asking people who considered themselves exceptionally lucky or unlucky to reach out to him.

Over the decade, more than 400 men and women reached out, from students to businessmen, factory workers, teachers, homemakers, doctors and salespeople.

Wiseman gave each one a newspaper, and asked them to flip through it and report how many photographs they spotted. The people who considered themselves unlucky typically took two minutes to count the photographs; those who had put themselves down as lucky took, on average, a few 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,” he wrote, in a report on the experiment published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, in 2003.

“There is a hidden, oft-dismissed factor that influences luck: our mental makeup,” says Delhi-based leadership coach Vivek Singh. “‘Lucky’ people tend to notice more opportunities, and act on them.”

Over weeks, months, years, a lack of this ability — an inattentional blindness — can amount to scores of lost opportunities: to collaborate, meet a goal, expand one’s knowledge and networks, all of which, over time, pile up in the form of access points, skills and other benefits that we then point to, when we say that someone has luck on their side.

Can a person change their luck? Understanding how the mind works can pave a well-defined path to becoming lucky, says Singh. Here are tips gleaned from Singh, Wiseman’s research, and the life coach and habit coach Chetna Chakravarthy.

Try new things: People who consider themselves lucky are more open to new experiences and more likely to intentionally seek them out, whether these involve unfamiliar foods, places, activities or people. This automatically widens their network of opportunities, to educate and improve themselves, to learn and collaborate, to navigate change and eventually, to succeed at their chosen goals, Wiseman noted, in his 2003 book The Luck Factor.

Remove the filters: Many of us go through the world only taking from it what we have always taken; viewing it in the ways we always have. This prevents one from creating and noticing opportunities, says Singh. Look around. Pay attention.

We return to Wiseman’s newspaper experiment for another simple but telling example.

In addition to the large ad stating how many photographs the paper contained, he placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper, announcing: “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” The “lucky” participants noticed and claimed their share; the unlucky ones missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for the photographs.

Trust your intuition: Whether one calls it the sixth sense, a hunch or gut feeling, there is a science to intuition. It is the brain offering you clues based on information bubbling beneath the surface. The human brain evolved to soak in data and analyse it extremely fast in order to survive. This, in many ways, is our species’ superpower. A slightly different rustle in the leaves; a distant sniff; the crack of a single twig could indicate threat, opportunity, perhaps dinner.

We are still absorbing information at this rate. Much of it will never register in our consciousness, but remains locked away in long-term memory.

“Our brains are wired to spot and match patterns; to contrast what we know with new information. When a new circumstance presents itself, our intuition connects strands of relevant information from the crevices of our subconscious and unconscious to the situation at hand and offers a hunch, an inkling, an inexplicable sense of what steps to take next,” says Singh.

Learn to spot intuition, hone and trust it.

Find ways to lower anxiety levels: Lucky people tend to score lower on anxiety and self-doubt, and higher on resilience and optimism. All of which enables them to engage more effectively with people, and with information they receive and already know.

Stress and anxiety lead to a shrinking of attentional spotlight, Wiseman notes, in his book. “Lucky people see what is there, rather than trying to find what they want to see.”

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