Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Luck of Myshkin

I just tossed away yesterday’s losing Pick-6 ticket. Yes, I buy a state lottery ticket every week or so (though I often forget to do so) for no real reason other than that the fantasy of winning is worth a buck. It’s not worth more than a buck per week, however, because winning a lottery (to mix gaming metaphors) is not in my cards. Correction: in the draft lottery my first year of college, I scored “31,” which was a winning number that carried a prize of an all-expenses paid tour of Vietnam, but I opted to keep my student deferment rather than cash in on it immediately; by the time I graduated in 1974 the prize had expired. So, I’m not unlucky by any means. Things sometimes break my way. Yet, four leaf clovers don’t bloom in my yard either. I roll sevens exactly the percentage of times statistical theory predicts, and turn up snake eyes with equal fidelity to the odds. I’m the rule, rather than the exception, just as, by definition, most of us necessarily are. So, New Jersey collects an extra $50 from me per year, and the chance that lottery cash will flow the other way is less than getting struck by lightning.

Is there really such a thing as being born lucky? Yes, I think so. I don’t ascribe anything paranormal to it. The Bell Curve requires outliers in each direction. Purely randomly, some people just are just flukes.

You surely know someone like this. Let’s call him Lucky Chucky. His investments always are perfectly timed. He wins the best jobs and the best dates without apparent effort, just by being in the right place at the right time. He never gains weight during the holidays despite a voracious appetite. Even when his luck seems to desert him, it turns out for the best after all: the flight he misses because he is stuck in traffic has double engine failure on take-off and splashes in the Hudson; a bank error freezes his accounts for 48 hours, preventing him from buying the stocks he wants, the day before the market crashes; that sort of thing.

Then there are the Gloomy Glendas who seem hounded by fate. My favorite example is the winner of a Dubious Achievement Award by Esquire some years ago. The fellow drove off a road in Italy and was seriously injured, but he hung on by a slender thread. An ambulance picked him up, but hit another car on the way to the hospital. The patient hung on. A second ambulance took him, but drove off the road. The man survived. A police car showed up, put the man in the back, and sped off toward the hospital. The police car had an accident with another vehicle. That one killed him. Then there was a British mariner in World War One who had three ships sunk under him by U Boats in one hour, a record which holds to this day. The sailors who pulled him out of the drink the third time showed daring under the circumstances.

Lucky Chucky typically dismisses the awe of onlookers with the smug comment, “People make their own luck.” Annoyingly, there is some evidence of this. Belief that you are unlucky is deleterious. Friday the 13th, for example, really is hazardous for those who think it is. A nationwide Finnish study of hospital records by Simo Nayha covering accident fatalities between 1971 and 1997 showed significant spikes (from 5% to as high as 38%) on Fridays numbered 13 compared to other Fridays. This looks suspiciously like dangerous overcompensation, especially since it is purely a Western phenomenon. Among Chinese, not 13 but the number 4 is traditionally inauspicious. Sociologist David Phillips found a 7 percent higher mortality from cardiac arrest among Chinese Americans on the 4th day of each month; no such correlation exists among non-Asian Americans. The effect again probably involves stress and overcompensation. We all know how counterproductive it can be to try too hard to avoid a bad outcome; in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin is so determined not to break his hostess’ vase that he accidentally smashes it.

It cuts both ways. In a study by Richard Wiseman, volunteers were asked to rate themselves as lucky or unlucky. They then were given a newspaper and were asked to count the photographs. Inside the paper was a half-page ad that read “Win 100 pounds by telling the experimenter you have seen this.” Far more of the self-described lucky people than unlucky ones spotted the ad. By focusing on counting photos – in other words, on not making a mistake -- the unlucky ones missed the opportunity.

There are limits to making your own luck, of course. No amount of positive attitude will alter the odds on a throw of the dice. There is not much to do about the truly random vagaries of fortune but bear with them. Jim Croce: “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.” The universe is disinterested, but (unlike some people) it is not actually malicious, however much it sometimes seems to be. And yes, lottery results are covered by the limits to making your own luck – short of rigging the draw, that is. Self-described “lucky” and “unlucky” people show no statistical difference whatsoever in lottery results. They are equally unlikely to win.

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