Monday, 30 September 2013

I’ll Take My Chances.... Or should I?

by Tom Harper

"Good luck”, “That was lucky”, “It’s bad luck”. For an abstract concept which occurs beyond one’s control, without regard to one’s will, intention or desired result, luck appears to have had a remarkable effect on the way we as human beings have functioned and still do today. Ranging from the rolling of dice in a casino to the fear of someone ‘jinxing’ a performance, or indeed from buying a lottery ticket to hoping that the train arrives on time, luck permeates every aspect of modern society.  As a result, a wide variety of global cultures have their own take on the ‘luck’ factor: with Irish people wandering the countryside searching for four-leaf clovers and native Americans stringing up ‘dream-catchers’ above their beds.

However this poses the question as to what exactly is luck, if anything at all, and should we as a developed society really be putting so much faith into something that happens regardless of one’s wishes? Should we really ‘take our chances’ when it comes to a principle of uncertainty, or should we ignore them? To find out, it is necessary to explore the different variations of luck that we as human beings subconsciously employ every day, and whether or not there is such a thing as being ‘lucky’.

The first way in which one can interpret luck is as an essence. Over the past few thousand years there has existed a series of spiritual or supernatural beliefs regarding fortune, and although these beliefs vary widely from one to another, there is general agreement that luck can be influenced through spiritual means by performing certain rituals, avoiding certain circumstances or obtaining certain objects.

Nowadays this most commonly takes the form of superstition, with picking up pennies being considered as ‘good’ (both in the lucky and financial sense) and opening an umbrella indoors being seen as ‘bad’ (as well as impractical). Mesoamerican religions, such as the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas, had particularly strong beliefs regarding the relationship between rituals and the gods, which could in a similar sense to Abrahamic religions be called luck or providence. In these cultures, human sacrifice (both of willing volunteers and captured enemies), as well as self-sacrifice by means of bloodletting, could possibly be seen as a way to propitiate the gods and earn favor for the city offering the sacrifice. Christianity, in its early development, accommodated many traditional practices including the acceptance of omens and carrying out of ritual sacrifice in order to divine the will of their ‘supreme being’ or to influence divine favoritism.

Echoes of the more archaic take on fortune can still be felt today, as although we may not pray to the household gods for luck as the Romans did we still arguably devote ourselves to it through mottos and ‘paraphernalia’. For example, during the middle ages Blacksmithing was considered as a ‘lucky’ profession, so is it any wonder that the horseshoe is perceived as an embodiment of fortune? Furthermore ever since humans started to count numerology has been applied by various cultures to fortune telling and psychic reading, with the number 7 being considered as ‘lucky’ (due to the Japanese ‘Seven Gods of Fortune’) and the number 13 being considered as ‘unlucky’ (due to its association with the Last Supper). Thus in one sense luck is not a determining factor but a form of tradition, in which the faith of our ancestors has inspired us to believe in similar, if developed, principles of fortune.

The second and perhaps more ‘practical’ (but deceptive) form of luck is as a fallacy. This view holds that “luck is probability taken seriously” and takes the rationalist approach that luck includes the application of the rules of probability, and an avoidance of unscientific beliefs. In other words, a believer in luck is someone who follows "post hoc ergo propter hoc" logical: that because two events are connected sequentially, they are connected causally as well.

The most obvious example of this is the gambler’s fallacy, otherwise known as the Monte Carlo fallacy or the fallacy of the maturity of chances. This concerns the mistaken belief that if something happens more frequently than normal during some period, then it will happen less frequently in the future (presumably as a means of balancing nature). This fallacy can arise in many practical situations although it is most strongly associated with gambling where such mistakes are common among players. A good example of this can be found with the simple tossing of a coin. With a fair coin, the outcomes in different tosses are statistically independent and the probability of getting heads on a single toss is exactly 12. It follows that the probability of getting two heads in two tosses is 14 and the probability of getting three heads in three tosses is 18. Now suppose that we have just tossed four heads in a row, so that if the next coin toss were also to come up heads, it would complete a run of five successive heads. Since the probability of a run of five successive heads is only 132, one might believe that this next flip was less likely to be heads than to be tails. However, this is not correct, and is a manifestation of the gambler's fallacy; the event of 5 heads in a row and the event of "first 4 heads, then a tails" are equally likely, each having probability 132.

When applying this concept to modern society, it is not difficult to see that however absurd it may be we are all subject to it in one way or another. Many people believe that by continuously buying scratch-cards they are bound to win the lottery eventually; those who win consecutive rounds of poker are considered by their recently less-wealthy peers as ‘lucky’; and even those who are struck by lightning more than once are considered ‘unlucky’. Hence on another level luck is the attempt to spot a pattern or predict a sequence based on previous occurrences.

However, the most prominent and indeed relevant interpretation of luck is as a lack of control. This view incorporates phenomena that are chance happenings and where there is no uncertainty involved, or where such uncertainty is irrelevant. Within this framework one can differentiate between three different types of luck.

The first is constitutional, which entails luck that concerns factors that cannot be changed. For example, you may refer to your friend who has a pool, tennis court and indoor gymnasium as ‘lucky’ due to their wealth, however their being born into a rich family had nothing to do with fortune. The same goes for a person’s genetic constitution or indeed the current state of the weather. The second is circumstantial, which involves luck made up of factors that are brought about haphazardly. No matter how lucky my sister insists that I am due to my discovery of an abandoned £10 note in the local station, this was simply due to a random chain of events that eventually resulted in my pocket being ever so slightly fuller. More examples can be found with accidents or running into an old friend. The third is ignorant, which concerns luck with factors that no one knows about and so can only be identified through hindsight. For example, you may have been told by friends or family at some point in your life “Cor, it was lucky you booked that table when you did or else we would have had to wait for hours!” or indeed “It was just unlucky that you weren’t with us at that New Year’s party where Labrinth surprisingly turned up...”.

Regardless, the connecting factor of these forms of luck is that there is no controllable variable. All three recognise luck as an abstraction that is used as an excuse to explain a chain of events or an eventuality, and so are in contrast to the previous two variations in terms of denying any matter of certainty. Therefore the final and most accurate way in which we can perceive luck is as a scapegoat.

In conclusion, throughout this article I have identified various forms of luck that can in turn be applied to a variety of situations, and it is fortune’s very complexity that can be seen to defy its existence. Luck can be seen both as the following of previous patterns as well as the prediction of new ones, and so one might argue that to be ‘lucky’ is both to conform to convention whilst also to defy it. Here is where the notion of fortune falls apart. Dirty Harry’s comment of “Do you feel lucky, punk?” henceforth becomes irrelevant as luck is no surefire way to guarantee the realisation of our ambitions, and so in one sense it is not worth the faith we occasionally put into it.

However this assessment can be taken too far. In personality psychology, people reliably differ from each other depending on four key aspects: beliefs in luck, rejection of luck, being lucky, and being unlucky. People who believe in good luck are more optimistic, more satisfied with their lives, and have better moods. If ‘good’ and ‘bad’ events occur at random to everyone, believers in good luck will experience a net gain in their fortunes, and vice versa for believers in bad luck. This is clearly likely to be self-reinforcing. Thus a belief in good luck may actually be good for you in spite of it not existing. That’s fortunate, isn’t it...


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