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What is Luck?


Explanations > Meaning > What is Luck?

The need for luck | The reality of luck | So what


Have you ever felt lucky? Most of us do, from time to time. You have probably felt unlucky too. But what is luck? Is it some kind of natural law? Does it exist when nobody is there?

The need for luck

The truth of the world is that, while everything happens by cause and effect, it is all so complex we can only reliably predict so much. Yet this does not stop us trying. We think that if we can tell what is going to happen then we will be able to act in ways to our best advantage.

Our need for a sense of control, however, is a two-edged sword. While it drives us to predict and manage the world around us, we also know that we have limited success in this. So how do we cope? In short, we lie to ourselves. We explain our failures as the incompetence of others or just bad luck.

As well as seeking to control the familiar, our control need also pushes us to test our boundaries, to take risks and to gamble. When we succeed against the odds, when the gamble pays off, we feel lucky.

The reality of luck

In some ways, it is all just a game. When gamblers feels lucky, they believe they have beaten random chance, that their ability to control has somehow overcome natural chaos.

We may also feel lucky when we survive a poor decision or a road accident. Without our intervention, things happen to us and around us, and we explain the near misses and actual harm as being due to fortune, to good or bad luck.

Luck, then, is nothing but an explanation we give to the good and bad things that happen by chance, an attribution we use to give meaning to random events.

We also use luck in modesty, helping others feel good by saying it was lucky when we have succeeded through skill (and perhaps they have lost). In any case, luck is an attribution we use in order to create false meaning that makes us (and maybe others) feel better. It is not something we have and it is not something that comes from gods or nature.

Attributing luck is a deception, sometimes of ourselves and sometimes of others. As such, like other deceptions, it may be harmless and it may be used to gain deliberate advantage. We harm ourselves when we feel lucky and take unnecessary risks. We harm others when they are included in the impact of our hopeful choices, or when we encourage them to 'be lucky'.

So what?

Ways to use luck in changing minds includes:

  • Hide your skill by saying you were just lucky.
  • Hide your lack of skill by saying you were unlucky this time.
  • Flatter others by attributing their failures to bad luck.
  • Avoid praising others or criticize them by attributing their successes to good luck.
  • Encourage people to take risks by telling them they are lucky or you (or what you sell) can bring them luck.

See also

Statistical Principles, Attribution Theory, Ultimate Attribution Error, Fundamental Attribution Error


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