The Origins of Luck: Fate or Free Will?
Psychology has long been criticized for being overly deterministic- both sides of the nature/nurture debate leave no room for free will. With such a worldview, individual success and happiness could only be chocked up to positive inborn traits and fortuitous circumstances. But Elizabeth Nutt Williams, a Psychology Ph. D. at St. Mary’s College, chose to investigate the lives of “lucky” people and see just how much of their “luck” can really be chocked up to determinism.
The Test: One Optimist, One Pessimist, and One Friendly Businessman
She tested this by setting up a situation in which two volunteers were told to walk down the street and get a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop. One of the volunteers was a self-proclaimed “lucky” person, while the other was certain that she had been cursed with poor luck cradle to grave. En route to the coffee shop, a sum of money was left of the ground, in plain sight of both participants, and in the coffee shop, was a businessman who knew of investment opportunities that could benefit both volunteers. The man who believed himself lucky noticed the change on the ground and scooped it up without hesitation. The unlucky woman gave it nothing more than a passing glance. In the coffee shop, the lucky man cheerfully struck up a conversation with a friendly looking businessman who sat nearby him, and to his surprise, found that the man knew of great business opportunity! The unlucky woman sat and sipped her coffee alone, ignoring the smile of a nearby businessman.
Is Luck a Choice?
Clearly, a seemingly small variance in personal choices lead one man into fortuitous circumstances, and left the other woman sitting alone and feeling unlucky. This study corroborates many others that also suggest that individuals who maintain a positive outlook on life, and keep an eye open for new opportunities are significantly more “lucky” than those who don’t.
Or is the Choice made for Us?
Although one’s initial reaction to this might be to assume that we do indeed have greater control over our destinies than we might think, further analysis would suggest otherwise. The above studies also stated that “lucky” people score notably higher on extraversion and openness on the Big Five personality test. As we learned in Psych 101, the Big 5 personality test gives insight into inborn traits that remain remarkably stable over one’s lifetime. And although, in theory, we do have the ability to “choose” whether or not to strike up a conversation with a friendly businessman, those with high scores on extraversion and openness are far for likely to do so. And introvert could force themselves to talk to someone if they wanted to, but in general they far les likely to even think of it, and if they did, they are more likely to be held back by shyness or simply be uncomfortable with the novel social situation. Thus, the fact that an article trumpeting free will uses as its evidence the Big 5 personality traits forces an astute psychologist to question just how “free” these choices really are. If indeed extraversion and openness are lifelong inborn traits, couldn’t one’s self-made “luck” in terms of environmental circumstances really stem from real luck, outside of their control, in regards to their inborn temperament? Unfortunately for us introverts of the world, the pursuit of luck will always be an uphill battle.
1. Weber, Rebecca. “Make Your Own Luck”. Psychology Today May 2010: 63-68.