Please Explain: Luck

Friday, February 06, 2009

From superstition to simple probability, luck has different meanings in different cultures. We’ll find out why whether that lucky charm really can help you win the lottery. Richard Wiseman is a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire and author of the book The Luck Factor. Jeffrey Rosenthal is a professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of Toronto. His book is Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities.


Jeffrey Rosenthal

Comments [24]

Luke from Aberdeen

My wife and I play bingo two or three times a week. I can not explain how some people win every week. They buy there bingo cards in a long line so they can't buy the lucky card all the time. The only answer is the luck of the draw. If that person had my sheet they would still win. Does this make any since? My wife and I buy eight sheets of bingo, we each play four sheets. She wins 4 times more than me. I THINK AND BELIVE IN LUCK. I CAN'T EXPLAIN IT BUT ITS TRUE.

Sep. 16 2010 10:23 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Mike [10], I was thinking about "Ringworld" too! Only I remember it differently: because of overpopulation on Earth, its own people, not the aliens, regulated the right to have children by lottery. One of Niven's alien characters who heard about this commented that it sounded as if the Earthers were "breeding for luck." And it wasn't that the Earth character who was born after 6 generations of this was deliberately trying to influence events but that her luck was so strong that it influenced events in her favor w/no effort on her part.

Feb. 06 2009 04:20 PM
Rohini V. Kashyap


I didn't want to miss any part of the show, so I didn't bother calling. I may not have gotten through either, perhaps. Ah, on the other hand, had I thought I am a lucky person, period, I might have.

Returning to the discussion about luck, chance and randomness. On Wednesday morning, feeling positive (having made the decision to only think positive from now on only the previous night) I was driving at less than 30 m.p.h. on a well-traveled road, though at that time of the day there was very little traffic. As I was traveling south on this road, suddenly I sensed an object approaching me from my left. The object turned out to be a Ford mini-van whose driver chose to skip the stop sign. Quickly assessing the accident waiting to happen, I tried to minimize the impact. Yes, the driver hit me, but though the car incurred sever damage to the tune of $7000 (estimate), I walked away unscathed. So did the other driver, thank God.

Dr. Wiseman talked about chance (something we have no control over---e.g. my accident) and luck (something we can make through our general outlook on life---e.g. my walking away unscathed from a situation that had the potential to kill me if not at least maim). I also believe that my staying fit by going to the gym five days a week and my daily meditation had helped my mind stay very focused and I did all that was right to do just before the accident happened and thus helped minimize the impact. I would still call this luck (yes, something we make).

In life, we only need to finish strong, no matter how chancy the journey maybe. This means we have to keep going thinking our lucky breaks will one day come.

Just my two cents.'

Feb. 06 2009 02:52 PM
Roger Barr from Brooklyn, NY

I hate it when an 'expert' starts spouting about something that he obviously knows nothing about.
Case in point this guff about the telephones and knowing who is calling you being mere coincidence.
There are currently major experiments being conducted using thousands of people into telephone telepathy.
Suggest anyone who is interested in learning more go to the source

Feb. 06 2009 02:02 PM
hjs from 11211


connection between the superstition and the Knights Templar was popularized in the 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, however, some experts think that it is relatively recent and is a modern-day invention

Feb. 06 2009 02:00 PM
Amy from Manhattan

One of the guests said he doesn't buy "commercial lottery tickets." Is there another kind where the odds are better?

And to Jeffrey, I was born on Friday the 13th too! Hey, does that mean all the superstitions work backwards for us?

Feb. 06 2009 02:00 PM
Tim Reeves from San Francisco, Calif.

Science has NOT yet disproven synchronicity -- they are simply smug in giving their presumed explanation for why it is unscientific. B.S.!

Feb. 06 2009 01:58 PM
Mike from Prospect Heights

That Knights Templar thing isn't true. That's a modern invention, possibly popularized by the Da Vinci Code. References to Friday the 13th don't exist before the 20th century.

Feb. 06 2009 01:58 PM
figato from very hard to find a parking spot

Obliquely related to Luck theme: I wonder what Jeffrey thinks about I. Asimoff's Foundation trilogies views on probability and prediction.

And if Richard could think of a connection between his research and recent research finding placibo effect persists even in patients who don't believe in the drug's efficacy.

Feb. 06 2009 01:55 PM
JT from Long Island

@Richard Johnston,

But if she had lived longer or even recovered they would say that their prayers were answered. It's the same as when you think of someone and just at that moment they call you on the phone. You remember that but forget the hundreds of other times you think of people and they don't call. We tend to remember the events that reinforce something.

Feb. 06 2009 01:53 PM
Lucy from the bronx

Can you please ask the guests about worry as opposed to optimism and its effect on luck. You can be optimistic and hopeful but still worry about the future...

Feb. 06 2009 01:52 PM
Greg from Manhattan

See "Jakob The Liar" for a moral discussion of "luck" "reality" and perceived outcomes...

Feb. 06 2009 01:52 PM
Scott from NYC

When is luck determined? If someone wins the lottery he may be considered lucky at that time. If the pressures related to his winning lead him to suicide, the lottery is no longer considered lucky.

Feb. 06 2009 01:47 PM
N/A from Brooklyn

Dr. Wiseman is only talking about personality types and labeling it luck. Every example he gives is directly tied to someones personality. If they have a positive outlook he calls them lucky, if they are more pessimistic he calls them unlucky. His argument is completely illogical.

Feb. 06 2009 01:45 PM
Mike Smuckler from Kew Gardens

In, Larry Niven's Ringworld, an alien species actually bred humans for luck. Niven's thesis was that someone who had absolute luck would influence events to suit them, even at the expense of the aims of those who wanted to harness that luck.

Feb. 06 2009 01:42 PM
Ben from Westchester, NY

How does this fit in with Carol Dweck's "Mindset"? My big question, can a child or adult change their attitude from being 'unlucky' to 'lucky'.

Feb. 06 2009 01:41 PM
Dave K from Brooklyn

Being of Irish heritage I was always taught that when you "knock on wood" you need to knock 'underneath' the wood three times so as not to knock the luck out of the wood. Much like hanging a horse shoe over a doorway facing up and not down so the luck won't 'run out' of it. Have your guests ever heard of this? And is this just an Irish thing? Thanks, love the show!

Feb. 06 2009 01:39 PM
Richard Johnston from Upper West Side

Regarding Prof. Rosenthal's remark that people collect evidence supporting their supersititions: I don't remember ever hearing a believer say "The Lord really let me down this time. I prayed, and I prayed and I prayed, but Aunt Grace died anyway."

Feb. 06 2009 01:39 PM
Jimmy P from Brooklyn

When I was a child I read a book that took place in Chinatown. The main character had everything going for him a young person, looks, brains, wealth, etc. As he grew older things got very difficult: he fell ill, he was burned in love and work. Through an elder it was explained that the good fortune of his youth had to be balanced by the unfortunate circumstances of his later years. Although I consider myself a rational person I always come back to this notion of a balance of luck.

Feb. 06 2009 01:39 PM
Mike Smuckler from Kew Gardens

I think luck has to do with perception. For instance, if someone goes on a trip, and the plane crashes, and one ends up a paraplegic, was he lucky not to die? If he were the only survivor, we would say certainly. If he were the only injured person, we would say no.

Feb. 06 2009 01:39 PM
Jamison from NYC

I am so unlucky that my friends call me Porkens. I have found if I hang out with people with less luck then I do, I become the lucky one.

Feb. 06 2009 01:39 PM
Irene Grapel from Bayside, NY

I would like to hear a comment on Internet chain letters that threaten or promise bad or good luck if the chain is not broken.

Feb. 06 2009 01:36 PM

The whole premise of being able to persevere or ever influence things is based on the flawed premise that we are free to make choices.

Feb. 06 2009 01:29 PM
Christine Rath from Brooklyn

I read about Dr. Wiseman in Oprah magazine this month--great article.

I am curious about Dr. Wiseman's former life as a magaician and how it lead him to psychology. Was it luck?

Feb. 06 2009 01:28 PM

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