Like it or not, we’re all a little superstitious. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — research shows that leaving things to chance and luck can enhance performance, increase productivity and reduce stress. As writer Eric Barker explains, being lucky isn’t completely beyond our control.
Fundamentally, your brain doesn’t like or want to believe in randomness. It always believes you have some control, even when you don’t. For instance, craps players throw dice less forcefully when they want low numbers, as if that will make a difference:
Nonetheless, many studies have shown that gamblers will bet more and continue gambling longer if they do have a personal role in these fundamentally random events. In some cases, this even affects the style of the particular actions involved in the game. For example, craps players tend to throw the dice with less force when trying to roll low numbers. (Via The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good)
Houses with addresses that have lucky numbers in them sell at a premium. People believe if they give away a lottery ticket it’s more likely to win. In Las Vegas, where superstitious beliefs are rampant, many large casino-hotels (such as MGM, Wynn and Palms Place) omit floor numbers 4, 14, 24, 34 and 40 to 49 because the number “4” is considered unlucky in the Chinese tradition. Even Nobel Prize winners (a pretty rational bunch) say that some of their success is due to luck.
And bad luck seems to exist as well. Research shows that being accident-prone is real: a meta-analysis of the distribution of accidents in the general population showed that the observed number of individuals with repeated accidents was higher than the number expected by chance.
So why do we lie to ourselves?
It may be delusional but we’re happier deluded. And delusion makes us perform better on average:
- Superstition can be performance enhancing.
- Irrational overconfidence increases producitivity and improves teamwork.
- Self-deception has been associated with stress reduction, a positive self-bias and increased pain tolerance, all of which could enhance motivation and performance during competitive tasks.
So you’re a sceptic. No need; I’m not encouraging anyone to believe in magic.
One of the primary ways good luck operates is by increasing self-confidence. It’s the placebo effect. And that’s why wishing someone luck works: Activating a positive superstitious belief can boost people’s confidence, which in turn improves performance.
And it’s the same reason good luck charms work:
The researchers found that by activating good luck beliefs, these objects were consistently able to boost people’s self-confidence and that this up-tick in self-assurance in turn affected a wide range of performance. Lucky thinking, it turned out in this study, positively affected people’s ability to solve puzzles and to remember the pictures depicted on thirty-six different cards, and it improved their putting performance in golf! In fact, people with a lucky charm performed significantly better than did the people who had none. That’s right, having a lucky charm will make you a better golfer, should you care about such things, and improve your cognitive performance on tasks such as memory games. (Via The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver)
So whatever increases our self-confidence can make us “luckier”. What else works?
In his research into luck, Richard Wiseman established four principles.
1. Maximise Chance Opportunities: Lucky people are skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, including networking, adopting a relaxed attitude to life and by being open to new experiences.
2. Listening to Lucky Hunches: Lucky people make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings. In addition, they take steps to actively boost their intuitive abilities by, for example, meditating and clearing their mind of other thoughts.
3. Expect Good Fortune: Lucky people are certain that the future is going to be full of good fortune. These expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies by helping lucky people persist in the face of failure, and shape their interactions with others in a positive way.
4. Turn Bad Luck to Good: Lucky people employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and often even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, do not dwell on ill fortune, and take control of the situation.
Wiseman also laid out actionable tips for becoming more lucky: Be open to more opportunities, interact with a large network of people, break routines and keep a relaxed attitude toward life.
This was Wiseman’s core finding: You can create your own luck. “I discovered that being in the right place at the right time is actually all about being in the right state of mind,” he argued. Lucky people increase their odds of chance encounters or experiences by interacting with a large number of people. Extraversion, Wiseman found, pays opportunity and insight rewards. (Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries)
Do these tricks actually work? Yes:
After identifying a group of people who identified themselves as unlucky, he shared the main principles of lucky behaviour, including specific techniques. As Wiseman described it, “For instance, they were taught how to be more open to opportunities around them, how to break routines, and how to deal with bad luck by imagining things being worse.” Wiseman included exercises to increase chance opportunities, such as building and maintaining a network of luck, being open to new experiences, and developing a more relaxed attitude toward life, as well as ways to listen to hunches and to visualise lucky interactions. After carrying out specific exercises for a month, participants reported back to Wiseman. “The results were dramatic: 80 per cent were happier and more satisfied with their lives- and luckier,” Wiseman summed. (Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries)
So maybe you’re still a sceptic. Give it a shot anyway. There are other benefits — believing in luck can make you more fun.
Magical thinking is also important for letting loose and having a good time. Brugger finds a positive correlation between magical ideation and the ability to find pleasure in life. More magic, more fun. (As long as reality stays within arm’s reach.) “Those students who are not magical are not typically those who enjoy going to parties,” he says. “To be totally unmagic is very unhealthy.” (Via The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane)
Eric Barker writes to understand why we do what we do and to use the answers to become more awesome at life. Bakadesuyo is on the blogrolls at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Eric’s Wired Magazine columns are here and you can email him here. Sign up for Bakadesuyo’s mailing list here.