William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Lucky You! All About Luck — WMBriggs Podcast

Robert Goulet: Time After Time

So there’s this guy, “J”—and this is a true story, so pay attention. J’s doing well, a pillar of his community. Big family, house, land, lot of money. He had health and plenty of friends. Everybody says he was a great guy. Kind to strangers, free with his wealth, happy.

Then one dark and stormy night some not-too-pleasant things happened to old J while he and his wife were away. His kids who were watching the property were victims of a home invasion; a bloody one. Bad guys broke in, killed the family, and then torched the place, maybe to eliminate the evidence. After this, J got a horrible, painful rash—who wouldn’t? Sick for a long time. He became listless.

Is this bad luck?

It is? So, what’s luck?

You’re walking along the street—you chose the quickest route to your destination—and you’re bashed in the head by a suicide jumper; or maybe you find a floating fifty on the curb. If you had known about the jumper, you would have gone another way. Or if you had known about the fifty, you would have ensured you didn’t deviate from your planned route.

You’re told to show up at a set time and place where you’ll be offered a job. But the guy you’re to meet is held up by a stalled train (another suicide; this happened to me). He had to fill the position immediately; he didn’t get to meet you and so was forced to give it to somebody else. Even if you had known about the train, you still would be sending out resumes the next day.

There you are on the flight, sitting in steerage in the middle seat and in the dark because every damn window is closed so people can meld with their “devices”, when the announcement is given, “Is there a pilot on the plane?”

You’re a pilot! You rush into the cockpit—

Dr Rumack speaks.

You save the day! If you had known the regular pilots shouldn’t have eaten the fish, you would have still got on the plane because you wanted to get where you were going.

Luck is only simple if you don’t think about it (like many things!). Let’s make it difficult by putting our little gray cells to work. What are the main factors in perceiving luck? At least predictive ability and deserve, which is to say justice.

In a moment, predictions.

Judy Gardland: Lucky Day

It is not that the co-incidence of standing on X-marks-the-spot and having a body fall on your head is inherently unpredictable. Logically the event is contingent, and most contingent events are predictable in a certain sense. That sense is this: that if we knew all the determinants or causes—and the two aren’t the same—then we could say the event will or won’t happen. If we only know some of the determinants or causes, or any number of correlates, then we could only say the event will happen with some probability. (Quantum mechanical events fall into this last class.)

Which is to say, we could make these predictions only if we cared to think about them at all. The woman was was beaned by the jumper, even if she had access to NSA-Orwellian-level tracking gear and thus had plenty of premises upon which to make a prediction—I mean she could use these to form a probability that she’d be socked—wouldn’t have thought to do so. Why would she?

Things, strange things, happen all the time. The possible class of good or bad contingent things that could happen to you are endless, and there’s no way to know how to pick and choose among these events in advance. Here’s what I mean. Suppose an Evil Genius Scientist comes to you and says he’ll grant you one wish, which is to specify an event and he’ll tell you whether or not it will happen. This guy is so smart that he can even fix quantum mechanical determinants. But you only get one wish!

Everything in the universe, or under the sun, is available to you. You’re the woman about to go on her walk. What event do you ask about? You can ask, “Will I get beaned?” and the answer will be yes, though that’s obviously a useless question because it does’t specify when. You tighten it, “Will I get beaned while on this walk?” You’d be told yes, but not why or exactly when or how, and anyway you’re not guaranteed to not have (say) a body fall on you elsewhere or elsewhen. If you waited ten minutes and then walked, would that count as the same walk? And so on endlessly.

There are some situations which we peg as inherently dangerous or rewarding, mountain climbing blindfolded, say, or becoming a Democrat alderman in Chicago. But then predictions become easier because of the milieu, and if you were to fall or be offered a bribe nobody would say you had bad or good luck. The events are expected.

Sometimes luck has to do with what you know and sometimes it doesn’t. Predicting what will happen effects our perception of luck. Or rather, the absence of the ability to predict results in the feeling of luck. But there’s more to it.

Consider buying a lottery ticket with odds of winning, say, 1 in 300 million. Given the rules of the gamble (which some insist on calling a “game”), you can easily predict the outcome of you winning (which we’ve already done!). Suppose you win. Is that good luck? Maybe it’s easier to think of in reverse. Suppose you lose. Is that bad luck? It doesn’t seem so, to me, anyway. Given the rules, you were almost certainly going to lose; also, you knew this. But everybody would say you were lucky if you won. And the reason is the event was predictable but of low chance (given the specified premises of the gamble). That low chance (and knowledge of these premises) is what made it lucky.

Amplify this example. Suppose instead of buying the ticket, you were out walking and a stranger came up to you and said, “Here, take this. I’m trying to break myself of this damned lottery habit.” You win. Now that’s lucky. The event of the man giving you the winning ticket wasn’t predicted; it was predictable, upon assuming certain premises, but nobody, least of all you, would have thought of doing that.

That’s what makes the luck, then. It’s not the event’s rarity, or not just that. It’s that the event is unthought of and of seeming low chance even when considered after the fact because the premises which would have given rise to a tight prediction are themselves unknown or un-thought of.

Rarity and its cousin unpredictability are thus one factor in luck. What about deserve?

Unforgiven

The radio announces, “Teams are going to be chosen for the rocket ship to the new planet, seeing this one is doomed. Only those men as tall as 6’2″ will go.” Bad luck to you, because you’re only 5’9″. And darned unfair, too, you think. You deserve as much chance to be preserved as the tall and mighty. There was nothing you could do about being short! You were born that way.

That’s an appealing argument to us these days, but however alluring, you’re still left behind. Unlucky to be born short in times like these! There’s an element of unpredictability lurking here, too. If your parents had known the earth was to be doomed, they would have chosen a genetically engineered tall son instead of a pipsqueak like you. On the other hand, if they had done that, you would never have existed. You lose either way.

Let’s clarify this example. Suppose instead of being short, it’s your neighbor who’s diminutive. And he’s a jerk. Why, he was overheard saying “Don’t Call Me Bruce” Jenner was a man! Rumor has it he’s even a climate denier and a closet monarchist. The new world is better off without him, anyway, though we can admit it’s not good for him that’s he short. That he’s short means he’s getting what is coming to him.

As you watch the earth crumble from the viewport of the ship, you wonder to yourself, did your neighbor really have bad luck? The bad part is well enough, but the luck of the situation diminishes. This man was served cosmic justice! There’s no luck about it. His antics were bound to catch up to him, and they have. Don’t tell me about luck!

Okay, cosmic justice it is. What caused that justice? Something had to align your boorish neighbor’s shortness with his demise. The universe had to have been put into a just-so position to ensure his comeuppance. That would have required immense foresight on this causal power. After all, much of what determines height is decided at conception. This power also had to ensure your neighbor fell short of the occasional second helpings of ribs to deprive him of height-producing proteins. That’s a lot of work!

Before figuring that out, suppose as you muse staring out the viewport, you’re shocked to see your despised neighbor walking up the aisle of the ship! He explains the ship builder was a friend of his from way back and that he snuck him into a hidey-hole. “Lucky SOB,” you think. Luck he doesn’t deserve. And which you didn’t think of predicting, though your neighbor did.

You think your neighbor lucky and undeserving; he thinks himself shrewd and suitably rewarded.

Let’s get back to J, a most moral man, a God-fearing man. His woes were in no way deserved, we think. Therefore what happened to him was certainly bad luck, unpredictability aside. Yet Emerson said, “Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” Let’s be strong.

One day in his misery “J” finally had had enough. He cried out to God, “Why are these awful things happening to me! I don’t deserve this!” What shocked the bejeebers out of “J” was that God replied.

God said, “Man up and stop bitching. It’s not for you to understand everything that happens. I’m God. You’re not.” (The latter four words are often fondly quoted by Peter Kreeft as an apt summary of the Bible.)

Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers!

Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands? When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door, and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves stop?

Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place for taking hold of the ends of the earth, till the wicked are shaken from it?

The earth is changed as clay by the seal, and dyed like a garment; but from the wicked their light is withheld, and the arm of pride is shattered. Have you entered into the sources of the sea, or walked about on the bottom of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you, or have you seen the gates of darkness?

Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth? Tell me, if you know it all…

Will one who argues with the Almighty be corrected? Let him who would instruct God give answer!

Turns out God allowed the bad things to happen to Job (for this is who “J” was), and that, of course, the bad things were caused to happen. So this wasn’t luck, but design. Job didn’t know it wasn’t luck until he thought about the design, though. Before he considered the why, he thought he had hard luck.

“Deserve” helps define luck. Your sainted mother who wins the lottery deserves her luck; and it is lucky for her to have won. The Planned Parenthood butcher who falls down a flight of stairs and aborts himself got what was coming to him; if anything this is good luck, but not for the killer.

When people get what everybody expects luck vanishes. Consider that you walk to work and nothing happens except you get there unharmed. You expect this. It’s not lucky, it’s predictable and it’s not rare, but still something caused you to get there (the final cause was your decision of destination). If you’re beaned on the head by something, it’s bad luck, not predictable, and rare, and still there is a cause for which there must be a reason, which we usually won’t understand.

Memphis Minnie: Bad-Luck Woman

We’re not done with deserve. A weight-lifting contest is to be held between Ivan “Mad Dog” Ivanov, a 6’6″, 312-pound ex-Marine muscle mass, versus “Diversity” Drew Cohen, a 5’8″, 158-pound Harvard Women’s Studies graduate. Mad Dog wins. Is that luck? Why not?

Mad Dog was born big and manly, Diversity Drew was born soft and effeminate. Neither chose their physique, but both chose to train to life weights. It wasn’t Diversity Drew’s fault that he hadn’t a chance. Mad Dog might come to the view not that he was lucky, but that he deserved his laurels because he worked hard at being the best weight lifter he could be.

This bothers Robert Frank, the H.J Louis Professor of Management at Cornell. He says Mad Dog is lucky, pure and simple, and therefore Mad Dog would be “less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made [his…] success possible.”

Napoleon said, “Ability is of little account without opportunity.” This is a trivial truth, yet so is its opposite: opportunity is of no account without ability. And this is what Frank misses. Frank would invert our scheme and put nearly everything down to “luck” and nothing to cause, and certainly very little to choice. Why? He does so in part because he thinks people who believe they’re lucky are nicer.

But to believe in luck is to believe that “randomness” and “chance” are ontic, which is absurd, and leads to the false belief that you can boost chance (by government intervention) in your favor. Even those who carry “lucky charms” believe in cause, and though they might not have identified the right cause, they’re at least pointing in the right direction.

Understand that everything we discovered follows for absolutely every moment of your life, every “event”. That includes waking up in the morning, walking to the kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee, listening to this marvelous broadcast. Every moment would be “lucky” under Frank’s scheme, but under our understanding, every moment has purpose and reason. It’s therefore rational to seek out and understand these purposes and reasons.

Solon said, “Let no man be called happy before his death. Till then, he is not happy, only lucky.” Merle Haggard would say you can be both happy and lucky. Right, Merle?

Merle Haggard: Always Lucky With You.

23 Comments

  1. 2nd paragraph typo: He because listless. You and “J” have diabolical enemies.

  2. Pretty much everybody active in the real world “gets” this definition, including themes not overtly stated such as a fortuitous meeting with a stranger who gives one their movie or concert ticket (an occurrence not meeting the usual definition of “success” or “failure”)…such themes beyond the explicit meaning of the terms are implicitly understood by the CONCEPT:

    Luck – success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.

    While one might parse the meaning of a broad concept to an extreme semantic analysis of the literal meaning of the words used — a curious recurring obsession in & of itself — the real question seems to be, “Why?” ( as in, “why bother, what practical difference does such an analysis make?” or, “why the compulsion to think such thoughts?” etc.).

    I.E., why is comprehension a broad concept that is so clear to so many elusive to some?

  3. Briggs

    May 11, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Gary,

    Bad luck.

  4. As long as you ended with a “Country” reference

    “Hee Haw” had a weekly segment featuring “Oh, Where Are You Tonight” with the line “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all”

  5. Alan Watt, Climate Denialist Level 7

    May 11, 2016 at 11:47 am

    In the paragraph containing the example of becoming a Chicago Alderman:

    … and if you were to fall or be offered a bride nobody would say you had bad or good luck.

    Things may have changed since I lived in Chicago but I think the probability is greater an alderman would be offered a bribe rather than a bride, unless it was really his lucky day.

  6. Briggs

    May 11, 2016 at 11:49 am

    Alan W,

    Arrrggh.

  7. When I was in grade school, Grandma told me there were a four-armed lady Buddha named Good Luck who along with my ancestors watches over me and governs the issuing of luck currency based on Karma, and a bulging-eyed and large-eared and giant Ghost who, of course, is male, called Bad Luck. To her, my life is at the mercy of Good Luck and Bad Luck, which is a notion that I hated as a kid because I wanted some credits for my own achievements, good or bad. Anyway, I am especially lucky, in a good way, to have had her as my grandma. She was my grandma when I was born, which is something that I took no active part in making it happen. Luck that is!

  8. Some “bad luck” advisories serve a useful purpose. Saying it is bad luck to walk under a ladder is equivalent to saying it is unwise or potentially dangerous to do so, but children may have a better memory, and better compliance, with the quasi-religious nature of “luck”.

    I sense a self-hypnotic effect with lucky charms or astrology (or a great many other things). While having a rabbit’s foot cannot possibly by itself exert much force on the universe, your belief in its effect will alter your behavior, making you more confident and achieving some measure of success that otherwise would likely not exist. It isn’t the rabbit’s foot, but it is your changed behavior.

    If it takes a rabbit’s foot to achieve that, well and good. I had a rabbit’s foot when I was a teenager, but not for luck. I just found it pleasing to touch.

    The closest thing to “luck” is divine intervention, and if you want some of that, give heed to what “G” said to “J” and J’s ultimate response to G.

  9. Great choice starting off with Robert Goulet. His warm baritone was tremendously popular in the early sixties when I first heard him on Mom’s kitchen radio. We were lucky to have him and unlucky suffering the plague of rock and rap and sonic smut that soon poisoned the country. I recently added an album of his to my playlist and have been enjoying it tremendously. Okay, back to podcast…

  10. Yes – and maybe a bit no.

    The universe is obviously deterministic: nothing happens without a set of associated conditions that must be true for it to happen etc etc.

    However, “luck” provides a niggle. I know a kid who really is just plain lucky. If the school has a draw and all three members of his family get one ticket each, he usually wins something where no one else in the group does. I’ve looked at this in puzzlement for years: there’s no cheat (e.g. he doesn’t get multiple tickets etc) that I can see, but he wins more than he should. He’s gone to two fundraising bingos in his life, bought one card each time (my wife bought several), and won a turkey in one and a small cash prize in the other.

    The Tim Hortons coffee shops have an annual “roll up the rim” game here in which the most common prize is a free coffee. This spring we stopped at Timmy’s eight (I think) times during the promotion’s run: he won a freebee in every visit except one. I won a doughnut.

    For him, good luck seems to exist – but I have not asked him to buy a lottery ticket because (a) I don’t believe in luck and don’t like the odds on lotteries; and (b) I suffer some doubt re the “earnededness” of his luck and neither understand nor trust what’s going on with him.

  11. I don’t know that I believe in “luck”, but if it exists, I am convinced one only gets a certain amount thereof. Concerning Paul Murphy’s example, my response would be “You only get so much luck and instead of using it up on winning tickets and free coffee, I’m saving it for when the brakes go out coming down the mountain (Okay, I kind of used some for that, but skill is also involved, so one does not use all of one’s allotment in that case!). Luck when there’s life-threatening situations is more important than winning the lottery. It’s just a theory, but I figure better safe than sorry! 🙂

    I would also like to note that people indeed have different outlooks on luck. Fred inherits $100 million from his father and that is unfair and just lucky. Drew win $500 million in the lottery and that is wonderful. Both winnings were entirely based on luck in the sense that neither earned the money or did anything to deserve it (Yes, Drew bought a ticket, but maybe Fred put up with an abusive parent for years to be able to inherit—no one knows in many cases.) It is completely irrational to call Fred’s luck wrong and unfair yet call Drew’s right. What is really being said is only so many people can inherit money and if your parents aren’t rich, you have no chance. On the other hand, anyone can buy lottery tickets, so they have a “chance” of winning, no matter how small. “Luck” is bad and wrong if you cannot participate in the activity and therefore get a piece of luck of your own.

  12. I always think of luck as simply something that happens to you that you did not, or possibly could not, have expected. Neither I, nor anyone I know and respect intellectually, thinks of luck as a real noun that causes things, but rather just an adjective for describing events. I think of the rock music business, here. Among these musicians you will often hear about luck, and I’m just as guilty as the rest of them. Among the rank and file rock performers all over America there are just so very many great guitarists, great vocalists, great writers, great performers, etc. It’s the band that gets heard on a good night by a NY agent who happens to be in a good mood that day even though his main act just group-overdosed in a pool, they’re one’s who make it! Or maybe they have an uncle in the business. The uncle thing is the perfect example, of course, as to whom you’re born being completely out of your control. Nepotism runs rampant in the music business, and in the arts in general.

    JMJ

  13. Luck is the thing caused by Chance. You may have either Good Luck or Bad depending on Chance. However, if, for some reason, Chance ignores you then you will have No Luck At All.

  14. In the middle seat in the dark because all the damn windows are closed … Pure poetry. Thanks!

  15. “if we knew all the determinants or causes—and the two aren’t the same—then we could say the event will or won’t happen.”

    Is it really so? Or is it so ONLY for events involving inanimate bodies i.e. the realm of physics?

    It may be, and I strongly suspect it is, that humans and animals are not predictive in this way. Humans have free will and thus are never are to pre-determined. Animals, I suspect, are not fully capturable by formal physics. As Aquinas wrote
    Stones move by necessity, sheep move by instinct, and man moves by deliberation.

  16. for instance,
    “The event of the man giving you the winning ticket wasn’t predicted; it was predictable, upon assuming certain premises”

    Which premises?
    I would say that this event, depending as it is on the free will of the man giving the ticket, was entirely unpredictable.

    Indeed, Briggs is not clearly distinguishing between two modes of future-telling
    a) Based upon some algorithm–that is prediction in the sense of physics and games of chance
    b) Based upon knowing a person–this is a non-formal way we may predict actions of people we know. A wife may well predict how her husband or children would do in certain circumstances, but she does not predict by using an algorithm.

  17. Mactool,

    Prediction doesn’t necessarily mean with certainty. Every thing said about free will could be said if “unknown causes” replaced “free will”. Do you think giving a name to an unknown cause changes things? Are you saying a weather prediction can’t be made when not all causes are known? Do you feel you are never safe because anything might happen? Do you quake and cower in bed because of this? If so, why would you think you are any safer there than elsewhere?

  18. Mactoul: It is probably true that animal behaviour could be predicted with 100% accuracy if we knew all the factors. It would be difficult and we’d need more than a supercomputer to process it, but animals react with a fair amount of predictability as it is. Generally, when things go wrong at zoos and homes, it’s the human that made the mistake in reading or knowing the behaviour to expect, not the animal responding unpredictably.

    Humans are another story. We could probably get fair prediction, as, again, humans are quite predictable right now. However, it would be a super-human task to try and catalog all factors in any human being’s behaviour. Even then, I’m not sure one can predict “free will” decisions, meaning those that go against all factors in the decision and remains outside of what can be known by any method.

    Predicting by “algorithm” is just a mathematical way of predicting the same way a wife does about her husband. You appear to be objecting to the idea that human behaviour can be represented numerically by an algorithm, but evidence says it probably can to a large degree. Numerically, there is a 100% chance if I can reach the “mute” button on my remote, certain commercials will never be heard. Numbers can be assigned and the prediction is accurate. So-called psychics have a “method” to which numbers could be applied, propaganda can be itemized and assigned numbers, even parenting outcomes can often be numerically predicted. Humans just find that insulting, it’s not impossible. (It is impossible at a 100% accuracy level.)

    DAV: I don’t believe weather forecasts much, I know I am never safe and just deal with it, though not by quaking in bed (that is NOT the only possible reaction and as you imply, bed is not safe anyway). Knowing there is uncertainty is just being rational. Only a few things are certain, and I would limit that to this solar system and some physics. No, prediction does not mean 100%, but many people seem to think it does as they believe all predictions made by “scientists”. There was a time that people understood the future could not be predicted but now slap a “scientific consensus” on the future and it’s 100% certain. Scientists demand we accept the certainty of their consensus or else. That is one likely source of the belief that prediction is 100%.

  19. @Sheri,
    And maybe Fred worked with his dad to build their business and/or family holdings fom around $1 million to $100 million, making Fred’s inheritance entirely deserved and earned.

  20. I have been a long time visitor here but I’ve never commented. I think I have an anecdote that is interesting. Lady luck has smiled upon me in small ways several times. One particular instance happened in my late teens that left me feeling lucky but also a bit unsettled. I was fixing my jalopy of a car so my trips to work would be less stressful. I had installed new plugs, spark plug wires, distributor cap, points and condenser. The last step was to set the gap of the points. To do it right one needs a feeler gauge. Mine wasn’t in the tool box, nor any place else I looked. I had to be to work in 45 minutes. I remembered my buddy had a set. I grabbed my bike and began the ride that was going to take at least twenty minutes. There was a stop sign at the end of our road and as I waited for traffic to pass I looked around and lying not 10 feet away on the other side of the road was what looked like a feeler gauge. Upon closer inspection it was. Not mine but it an even better one. I had barely ridden a hundred yards. I got to work on time.

  21. sheri,
    “Numerically, there is a 100% chance if I can reach the “mute” button on my remote, certain commercials will never be heard.”

    100% because presumably you know yourself (and not algorithmically either).

  22. Actually, anyone who observed me for a couple of days could make that observation and prediction. There are a lot of commercials and I keep that remote handy! The only thing that would require lengthy observation might be which commercials must be muted, though I doubt more than perhaps a week would be required for high predictability of which must be silenced. It’s a behaviour easily observed, quantified and predicted by anyone observing the scene. An observer would have to notice my muting behaviour and then want to quantify it for this to work, of course. I agree that I chose the 100% because I know me and my motivation for the task. However, it’s easily observed at a minimum of 99% certainty by any observer. (This behaviour lead to my using the internet to listen to radio because my computer keyboard has a mute button for the sound, my radio does not. When I said 100%, it was based on knowing myself, but it’s also based on the breadth of behaviour and how easily it could be observed.)

  23. They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy. She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me. I can’t help it if I’m lucky.

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