It was a study of the 'psychology of luck', and examined people's beliefs about luck and explored the psychological differences between 'lucky' and 'unlucky' people. Lucky people were those people who felt that seemingly chance events tended to work out in their favour, whilst unlucky people were those who felt they tended to work out against them. The aim of the project was to discover why some people believe themselves to be lucky whilst others believe themselves to be unlucky. Do these people really lead very different lives? And if so, is there any psychological reasons why this might be the case? Or do 'lucky' and 'unlucky' people actually lead rather similar lives but differ in the ways in which they make sense of the events that happen to them?
The research was the brainchild of Dr (now Professor!) Richard Wiseman who, in collaboration with Dr Peter Harris, had obtained a research grant from the Leverhulme Trust, a charitable organisation that supports research in a variety of areas. I was employed as the Research Assistant working on the project, and took the opportunity to register for a PhD at the same time with Richard and Peter as my supervisors. Together, we interviewed and collected other psychological data from self-perceived lucky and unlucky people for over three years.
The picture that emerged was quite remarkable. Lucky and unlucky people, on the whole, were very different from each other. For example, while lucky people tended to be far more optimistic, and more extraverted individuals, unlucky people were more likely to be anxious and experience depressed mood states. Moreover lucky and unlucky people differed in the extent to which they remembered the positive and negative events in their lives, and also in the way they interpreted events. Lucky people found it easier to remember events they considered lucky than unlucky events, and were more likely to label events as lucky in the first place. This latter point is nicely illustrated by following little experiment:
Imagine you are waiting to be served in a bank when an armed robber enters and fires a shot. The bullet hits you in the arm.How lucky or unlucky would you regard this event? We asked people to rate the event (along with other events) on a scale from -3 (very unlucky) to +3 (very lucky), and found that there was a wide range of opinions regarding the luckiness of events such as this. While some people consider this event to be unlucky, others consider it to be actually rather lucky. In both cases, the judgement of how lucky or unlucky the event is made by imagining how the event might have been different from what happened. For example, those who consider the event to be unlucky can easily imagine a scenario where the bullet might have missed you altogether and so see it as being rather unlucky to have been hit by the bullet. Meanwhile, people who see the event as lucky are imagining a situation where the bullet might have hit you in the chest causing much more damage, perhaps even killing you. By comparison, a bullet in the arm is actually quite lucky. This just goes to show that an event is not necessarily lucky or unlucky in itself, it becomes perceived as such by the person making the observation. What was particularly interesting was that lucky people were more likely to rate the event as lucky while unlucky people were more likely to rate it as unlucky.
As I say, it is now 10 years since I was awarded a PhD for my contribution to this project on the psychology of luck. In the years since then my interest in this topic faded somewhat as I pursued other lines of research. In the meantime, my PhD supervisor, and the instigator of the 'luck project', Richard Wiseman, went on to conduct a whole lot more research on the psychology of luck which culminated in a best-selling book called The Luck Factor (Arrow Books, 2004) in which Richard identified four main principles that could "change your luck - and your life"!
The funny thing was that by the time this book was published I had developed a healthy lack of interest in whole 'luck' research. If anything, I was probably one of the most cynical about the ideas presented in this book. It was one thing to identify the various differences between self-perceived lucky and unlucky people, but another thing to suggest that you could change your luck by changing the way you think!
What is perhaps even funnier is that, not only am I now finding myself being drawn back to the ideas talked about by Richard in The Luck Factor, but I am also becoming convinced that Richard has barely scraped the surface. I've got a feeling that there could well be plenty more to discover about the psychology of luck, fate and destiny!