The Four Faces of Luck
Luck is probability taken personally.
The words luck and lucky are used in several ways,
and I find it most useful to distinguish
In everyday language, luck means "good luck", while
in our general discussion, "luck" will refer to either
good luck or bad luck; in practice this shouldn't cause any confusion.
I will try to frame the topic by explainng the four usages, and say a little about academic literature.
Incidently, the current
Wikipedia article on "Luck" is pretty bad -- someone please edit!
Four usages of Luck
1. Luck as superstition
This is typified by the belief that future good or bad luck can be influenced by
such things as: actions that one might do deliberately (blowing out all the candles
of a birthday cake) or accidently (breaking a mirror) or that happen near you
(black cat) or even by abstract associations (the number 13); or possession of talismanic objects.
Here I have used
American examples but all cultures have their own superstitions.
What makes such beliefs be superstition, of course, is that one can't point to any causal
connection. I mentioned "future events", but believing that past bad luck was caused by
a hex would be another superstition.
I don't have anything new to say on the topic; the book
Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition by Stuart Vyse gives a reader-friendly
account of one psychologists's view.
2. Retrospective luck
A short definition of (good) luck is
Most of us, looking at our individual past experiences, would find
instances where we consider we were lucky or unlucky, and this is what
I mean by "retrospective luck".
The link goes to my analysis (which enlarges upon the comments below) of a discussion of
luck in everyday life by the philosopher
In particular, Rescher suggests the following taxonomy.
when the outcome of a
chance event is favorable to the individual under consideration.
On first reading this list I was skeptical -- the categories are somewhat
vague and overlapping, and were based on hypothetical examples -- but they
actually do well on real examples, at least after adding two more categories:
- Windfalls or wind thefts
- Unforeseeable lost or gained opportunities
- Narrow escapes or flukish victimizations
- Coincidences (e.g. "being in the wrong place at the wrong time")
- Consequence-laden mistakes in identification or classification
- Fortuitous encounters
- Welcome or unwelcome anomalies (in generally predictable matters).
All this refers to memorable instances of luck, rather than day-to-day
instances of minor good or bad luck that we quickly forget.
- Other people's actions (when you have little influence on them)
having (un)favorable consequences for you
- Once-in-a-lifetime deliberate risk-taking that works out well or badly.
3. Luck as seizing future opportunity
One of my favorite quotes is
This reminds us that the word chance is often used to mean opportunity, as in
Here is a chance to invest in Ji'an's yam powder and forest frog fat (sic).
But looking for discussion of the idea of maximizing your future opportunity leads one into a
morass of "how to succeed in business" and pop-psych self-help books. One book that
mostly avoids the morass is
The Luck Factor by the psychologist Richard Wiseman.
The book is based in part upon interviews with several hundred people who self-describe as
being extremely lucky or unlucky.
He expresses his conclusions as four principles with twelve subprinciples:
the link goes to a complete list and my further analysis.
- Chance favors the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur
My basic critique is that this (as implicit advice) isn't really about luck at all;
any set of maxims on the topic
"how adopting a positive attitude towards life will help lead to success" would include such advice.
Anyway, it is interesting to contrast this psychologist's advice with the more "philosophical" advice by Rescher:
- Lucky people create, notice and act upon the chance opportunities in their lives,
- Lucky people make successful decisions by using their intuition and gut feelings.
- Lucky people's expectations about the future help them fulfill their dreams and ambitions.
- Lucky people are able to transform their bad luck into good fortune.
- Be realistic in judgements (evaluate the probabilities and utilities as objectively as you can)
- Be realistic in expectations (there is only so much one can do)
- Be prudently adventuresome (don't be so risk-averse as to lose out on opportunities)
- Be cautiously optimistic.
4. Separating skill from luck as contributors to success
xxx to be discussed elsewhere.
So what is luck, anyway?
The discussion above indicates the difficulty is saying what luck is; the
word really is used
with different meanings. But let us return to the context of
"retrospective luck" and
first repeat the earlier
short definition of (good) luck:
This reminds us that, in contrast to other words associated with chance,
luck is almost always
used in reference to an individual person.
Everything we would call (good) luck fits (*), but not everything fitting (*) would be counted as luck, so can we refine (*)?
Consider the following 4 characteristics of an event.
(*) when the outcome of a
chance event is favorable to the individual under consideration.
I regard these as determining the core concept of luck, in that
- it involves chance, in the particular senses of unpredictable
and outside the control of the individual;
- it is unlikely;
- it has a substantial impact on the individual;
- it is an event that happens at a particular time (rather than an ongoing "state of
(i) almost any event with all 4 characteristics would be regarded as luck
(ii) Most iconic or hypothetical examples of luck, such as the linked list from Rescher, do indeed have all 4 characteristics.
It is easy to find examples without one of the last three characteristics that one would still call
I do not see any sharp borderline between this core notion and the overly broad notion (*).
A useful account of academic literature relating to luck is given in
The psychology and philosophy of luck
by D. Pritchard and M. Smith.
But I am not convinced by their own attempt to capture the core notion of luck, which is
The former is my (3). The latter just seems a rather confused way to say unlikely;
or rather it is saying "unlikely, even conditional on knowing that everything not closely
affecting the outcome". But I see no virtue in replacing the usual "conditional
on what you know initially",
implicit in any real-world discussion of chance, with a "possible worlds" story.
- If an outcome is lucky, then it is an outcome that is significant to the agent
- If an outcome is lucky then it is an outcome which occurs in the actual world
but which does not occur in most of the nearest possible worlds to the actual
world (worlds which most resemble the actual world).