the:behavioral:lab

Do you feel pre-determined … punk?

During a particularly unfortunate (and melodramatic) time, I once told someone that only bad things happen to me. Anything good thing was not happening to me directly, but merely a by-product of something good happening to someone else. As you can imagine, I was not particularly happy, but don’t worry I got over it quickly. I even had a statistical justification. If, say, a trillion random things happen to a person in their life, on average half might end up good and half might end up bad. But what’s the standard deviation? If chance events are normally distributed, there is a likelihood someone, probably me, has at least 95% of those trillion random things turn out bad.

Obviously I didn’t really believe this, or at least to that extent. However, plenty of people out there have some opinion on their own personal luck. During a study where I asked people to make choices between gambles, I decided to ask them why they chose what they did. Most gave mathematical-type answers like the expected value of one was better than the other. A significant number, however, said they didn’t want to pick the risky gamble because they are they are not lucky.

So I began to think what other areas of decision making are affected by a person’s thoughts on luck. Gambling is an obvious one, and to an extent well-researched. Unlucky people tend to stop gambling after a string of losses, while lucky people tend to keep going. However, is this how people make their investment decisions? Or even their traffic decisions? I used to be able to take either the freeway home from work at UCLA or side-streets. Freeways can be faster, but in traffic its variable and you may hit a dead-stop. Side-streets at least have you moving all the time, that is except for at stop lights. I hear people discuss this same problem all the time, all over the country. Do I personally take side streets only when I think I am unlucky? Do I drink the 2-day-expired milk only when I am feeling good about my cosmic chances?

This is going to be the next branch of research I delve into. Can thoughts on luck be used as an individual difference measure to explain decision making behavior. Do attitudes toward luck change over time? Is the attitude merely conscious or does it affect choices even when a person is not thinking about whether or not they are lucky? In the end I hope to finally answer whether the bank robber in Dirty Harry really wasn’t feeling lucky or whether he was just making a rational choice.

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