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How to Have Great Luck

Were you born under a lucky star? Or maybe you’re having a Friday the 13th kind of life. It turns out having good luck isn’t just a matter of, well, luck. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen examines the science of getting lucky (no, not that kind of getting lucky).

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
August 11, 2017
Episode #165

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You find a penny. You pick it up. What happens next? Are you the type to believe that all day long, you’ll have good luck? Or are you simply one cent richer?

Some people are more naturally inclined to believe in luck than others. If you’re in the camp that searches for four-leafed clovers or sets out a one-paw-raised maneki neko cat in the front window of your business, research finds that your belief in good luck hangs together with two specific traits.

First, believing in good luck goes along with being optimistic—you likely have a positive outlook on life.

Second, believing in good luck goes along with what’s called positive illusions—ways of seeing the world which are biased in your favor. For example, you may believe everything will turn out fine, think you are in control of your destiny, or have a healthily inflated sense of your own abilities—if you’ve ever seen an overly confident Chihuahua bark like a boss at a bigger dog, you know exactly what I mean. Using pure logic, none of these beliefs is 100% realistic, but they make us feel good and, interestingly, make us more effective and successful. A little delusion, it turns out, is adaptive.

But what if you’re not exactly Little Miss Sunshine, or are less Chihuahua and more black cat? How should you approach luck? Lucky you asked! Here are the 2 big things to know:

Lucky tip #1: Know you really can make your own luck.

If your heart has been broken, you inevitably see happy couples canoodling behind every corner. If you’ve ever been pregnant, you may remember spotting other pregnant women everywhere. It’s the same with good luck: to find it, you have to see the world through its filter.

This phenomenon is called a confirmation bias, or the tendency to see and interpret the world in a way that confirms your experiences and beliefs.

For instance, athletes who believe in luck may pay close attention to those instances where they perform a superstitious pre-game ritual and then win. They may ignore all the times their sleeve-pulling, chalk-tossing, or head-knocking did nothing for them.

More seriously, confirmation bias helps perpetuate harmful stereotypes. You’re more likely to notice and remember that your millennial coworker is addicted to her phone and your baby boomer coworker can’t work the fax machine than the fact that the millennial is always being thoughtful toward others or the baby boomer goes surfing every weekend. As a result, the stereotypes get reinforced and carry on.

Same goes for luck. We pay attention to the circumstances that fit our own beliefs. So if we believe we’re lucky (or unlucky, for that matter), we’ll start to focus on the events and coincidences that are in line with that belief.

To take it further, we’ll also start acting in ways that confirm the belief. This creates what’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. For instance, you might not have risked cracking the joke in your presentation that made the entire conference room laugh if you hadn’t been wearing your lucky shirt. You may not have had the guts to swing at the softball pitch as hard as you did had you not done your pre-batting ritual of tapping your toes and touching your helmet.

These self-fulfilling prophecies are why lucky charms work (and I’m not talking about the magically delicious kind). If your rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe-shaped locket makes you feel lucky, you’ll likely act in a way that enhances your confidence or your willingness to take a risk, which in turn enhances your performance and thus underscores the idea that the lucky charm worked.

This is exactly what happened in a study in the prestigious journal Psychological Science. Researchers asked participants to putt a golf ball into a hole ten times from about three feet away. As they were handed their golf ball, half the group were told, “So far this has turned out to be a lucky ball,” while the other half were simply told, “This is the ball everyone has used so far.”

And, as luck would have it (ha-ha), the “lucky” ball group performed better, sinking an average of one and a half more putts than the group with the neutral ball. The researchers concluded that activating a belief in luck boosted the participants’ confidence at mastering the task, which in turn improved their performance.

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