#21 – Deconstructing Luck

Do lucky charms work?

rabbits foot

According to social psychologist, Dr. Lysann Damisch, the answer could be yes. She ran an interesting experiment with a group of people, asking them to make a 4FT putt. Before they attempted the putt, she told half the group that they were using the lucky ball. The other half of the participants were merely given the golf ball. Those with the lucky ball performed significantly better than the control group. While psychologists have long believed that lucky charms can improve performance on a task requiring a special skill, Damisch’s study provided strong evidence to support the claim.

Consider Wade Boggs.


Yes, this is a carryover from my days in “yankee-land”

Boggs maintained a very specific pregame routine.

He always ate chicken.

He took batting practice at 5:17PM.

He ran sprints at 7:17PM.

He wrote the word Chai in the dirt before every at bat.

Did this make Boggs a hall of famer? Damisch would argue that it certainly could have helped. In the past, rituals and lucky charms were used to combat the unquantifiable and mystical experience of bad luck. Superstitions are the tools that humans have used over time to control, influence or even explain certain outcomes.

Sports fans have used rituals to try and steer outcomes in their favor.

Consider Cephalopods & Red Wings.

In Detroit, The Legend of the Octopus began during a playoff game in 1952. A Red Wings fan threw an octopus on the ice because its eight tentacles represented the eight games needed to win the Stanley Cup. Whether a cephalopod mollusk influenced the outcome or not, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup that year.


Richard Wiseman was a performing magician that went on to become the Professor of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in England. Wiseman is a best selling author of The Luck Factor, Quirkology, and 59 Seconds, and he is also a consultant for shows like Brain Games and The Mentalist. Wiseman’s thoughts on luck differ a bit from Damisch’s approach. He believes that lucky charms and superstitions are rubbish (remember he is British). Seeking to prove his intuition correct, he gathered a group of people for an experiment. He surveyed the group by asking about their levels of happiness and satisfaction. Then he gave the group charms that were supposed to bring them luck. A few weeks later, he asked the group if the charms had any effect on their happiness and satisfaction. Not only were the effects of the charms non-existent, in some cases they were actually negative. Happiness seemed to increased for the majority of the group when they were able to give the charms back.

For Wiseman, this was the beginning of a long relationship with the study of luck.

4 leaf

The Luck Project

Wiseman wanted to answer two basic questions:

Why did certain people seem to enjoy lucky breaks?

Why did others live in perpetual shit shows?

Damn good questions.

The Research
– 400 men and women over the course of several years
– 18-84 years old
– Completed questionnaires, kept journals and participated in experiments
– After learning more about the participants, they were separated into two groups

Group #1 – Lucky group

Common characteristics in this group included high level of satisfaction with their life, happiness and gratitude, and a general go with the flow attitude.

Group #2 – Unlucky group

Common characteristics in this group were clumsiness, seemingly always in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a feeling that nothing ever goes their way.

Wiseman on the newspaper experiment …

“I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than 2in high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.”

Luck seems to be influenced by awareness. According to Wiseman, the unlucky group was more tense and anxious than the lucky group. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, an overactive prefrontal cortex fires cortisol that manifests as anxiety and tension. With this in the way, it’s often very difficult to be in the present moment. The lucky group is more relaxed. They are able to take the world as it comes, instead of being so focused on a particular individual outcome.

Wiseman on the four principles …

“My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.”

Wiseman on the comfort zone …

“Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety.”

Remember courage over comfort from last week?

What if you applied Wiseman’s four principles to your daily life?

Relax and be open to chance opportunities.
Listen to your intuition and act on hunches.
Expect good fortune.
Don’t dwell on the bad. Consider how it could have been worse.

What if luck is created by attention and intention?

ATTENTION – Giving something time and thoughtful energy

INTENTION – Commitment to a course of action

Attention requires the elimination of noise. With four kids under 12 years old, I actually just laughed at myself when I wrote the last sentence. Noise is not always audible. Noise is anything that takes you away from the present moment. Noise can be internal self-talk, it can be running through tomorrow’s to do list while you are meditating, or it can be the magnetic pull of refreshing your favorite social media app. The chance encounters that Wiseman refers to in his studies are not usually broadcast at high decibel levels with flashing neon lights. These opportunities require a receptive openness cultivated through present moment awareness.

Intention is acting on those opportunities. Wiseman talks about trusting your gut instincts in these situations.  Maybe choosing courage over comfort can play a part here?

So, what is luck?

Maybe Wiseman and Damisch both have good points.

I see it as this …

Luck isn’t an external force to be controlled or manipulated with trinkets.

Luck is an internal state of mind that can be cultivated and grown.

Here’s to increasing awareness and creating your own luck!




More On Richard Wiseman

More On Lysann Damisch

Test Your Awareness

Octopus Throw


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