FOLEY: Questioning the Luck of the Draw
Published: Thursday, October 24, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 25, 2013 13:10
There are approximately 30,000 anxious runners prepping for the 38th annual Marine Corps Marathon this Sunday. They’re picking up race packets, carbo-loading and obsessively planning good-luck rituals, though, personally, I’m convinced that only wearing my lucky spandex shorts can lead to a successful race.
Luck is probably one of the least scientific things out there. We all know logically that superstitions can’t actually foretell the future, but there’s something that draws us to them again and again. In fact, as it turns out, luck does have a legitimate place in the objective disciplines of science.
A study at the University of Chicago has found that rituals, specifically those linked to undoing bad luck, may actually help individuals avoid their undesired fates. Subjects who felt they were "jinxed" — that is, in a position to experience bad luck based on something they said or did — were found to be more lucky if they performed some sort of action that figuratively pushed the bad luck away from them, like knocking on wood or throwing salt over a shoulder. In these cases, people didn’t worry as much that a negative outcome would occur and were thus less stressed about it. This meant that they could even go so far as to say participants actually experienced the same kind of psychological relief as when they actually avoid bad luck, like dodging a banana peel on the ground or getting by without studying as much as they could have for an exam.
I was skeptical when I first read this. Though I knock on wood myself to undo a potential jinx, I’m pretty positive that my superstition has nothing to do with how my next midterm will go. (As I wrote that, I rapped my knuckles on my desk just in case.) However, scientists have found that there’s a connection to how we function based on our perceived levels of stress.
Luck isn’t about being in the right place at the right time but rather comes from taking advantage of an opportunity. British psychologist Richard Wiseman performed an experiment in which he asked subjects to read a newspaper and count the headshots. In the middle of the paper, there was subtly placed text saying "Stop counting — there are 43 photographs in this newspaper." He found that only those who were reportedly luckier could see it, while those who were unlucky missed it every time.
According to Weisman, this is because lucky people are more open to opportunity. He claims that unlucky people tend to be tenser, and their anxiety prohibits them from seeing what else is happening at any given time. Lucky people, though, are happy enough to fall upon different opportunities — say, a key networking moment with a CEO in line at Starbucks — despite the fact that they weren’t planning on finding any luck that day.
While it bothers me that lucky and unlucky are such subjective terms, these two studies may show that there are reasons why we may have lucky and unlucky streaks. We’ve all had those days when we just can’t catch a break, right? A bad exam followed by a crappy injury on the sports field followed by missing the bus and losing your keys. Anxiety over one aspect of your life can lead to all sorts of missed opportunities in which our own worry distracts us from pleasant surprises. It also explains why performing rituals that make us feel lucky — or at least immune to the detriments of bad luck — may actually work. While we aren’t expending energy over potential bad luck, we may actually run into unexpected good luck elsewhere. Or at least we’re happier for it, and more likely to notice pleasant surprises that may come our way.
So will my old biking spandex actually make me faster come race day? Probably not. But I have the mental security of wearing them on my side, and I won’t be stressed about what might happen if I don’t have them. When it comes to tackling 26.2 miles, I’ll take all the help I can get.
Katherine Foley is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Curious by Nature appears every other Friday.