Monday, June 1, 2009

Lucky dog!

After learning about my car accident, a friend and very kind and thoughtful person sent me a very solicitous email which included this:
I am thanking God for your safety, because that is the only way you and Tímea came out of that accident unscathed.
Another friend sent me a story of someone who was unbelievably lucky to survive a dramatic wreck. I, too, have the feeling that Tímea and I were extremely lucky to come out unscathed. But simple fact of the matter is that we were extremely unlucky to have been in the accident at all. This way of thinking is best illustrated through a probably apocryphal story of a neighborhood dog:
Some friends down the street have a dog named Lucky. The dog got the name, so the story goes, because he was hit by a car three times and survived each time. It seems to be an almost automatic reaction to consider how lucky the dog was. But a little reflection suggests that this is one of the most unlucky dogs around to manage to get hit three times.

The kind of thinking illustrated here is common, compelling, and irrational. It doesn't seem to come from religious teachings, since this this kind of thinking seems prevalent among the non-religious as well. I, along with some of my fellow atheists, have probably been too hard on some religious people by failing to recognize the near universality of this way of thinking.

It's easy to ridicule the tsunami survivor who attributes their (good?) fortune to the grace of God yet does not at the same time hold God responsible for the death and suffering of those less fortunate. The sportsmen who credit Jesus for their victory don't really believe that the Lord abandoned their competitors. Certainly the logic in their declarations are twisted, but it doesn't originate from being religious; it comes from being human.

But as long as the rest of us feel that dog Lucky is lucky, we should be looking at this as a human irrationality. Although I intellectually know that I was unlucky to have that accident and that Lucky is an unfortunate animal, the feeling that I and Lucky are lucky to be alive is very hard to shake. As with many optical illusions, knowledge that something is an illusion doesn't make the experience go away.

With optical illusions, it is fairly well understood why most of them occur. Cognitive scientists have a pretty good accounts of what sorts of heuristics our visual perception system uses and how those can be fooled. Here we have an illusion of fortune, and this suggests that there are some heuristics used in our perception of chance. Indeed, there is an entire stream of extremely well conducted research in cognitive psychology on this. But I do not know if the phenomenon that I've described here has been addressed.


  1. Hi Jeffrey
    Research carried out by Professor Richard Wiseman et al (psychologist) to explore the differences between people who considered themselves exceptionally lucky or unlucky revealed interesting results.
    One of those findings is that lucky people turn bad luck around by choice.
    Lucky people employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and often even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way.
    For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have turned out for the worse. Seems too simple, doesn't it? But the research findings are clear and undeniable. Lucky people face the reality of bad luck and how it impacts them but they do not dwell on the facts of ill fortune. They thereby maintain control of the situation.
    Put simply, it's the 'glass half-full vs glass half-empty' perception or 'optical illusion' as you refer to it.
    Either way, I am glad to hear you are around to talk about your car accident.
    As for me, life's a bowl of cherries at this very moment as I have a half glass full of fresh fruit juice in front of me. And I am busy preparing the launch of Australia's first Luck School workshop where learning to be lucky will be fun. Touch wood!

  2. Michael,

    Thank you for your comments. I wonder, however, how much of these differences between people are changeable through training or whether they are deeply ingrained (and difficult to change) personality traits. For example, most people who suffer from depression or dysthymia know that their own pessimism and outlook is the problem, but often times that can only be fixed through medication.

    Being told the habits and ways of thinking of happy people isn't going to make unhappy people pick up those habits. So while I agree that much of this is a matter of attitude, I am skeptical of the kinds of programs you offer.