It’s St. Patrick’s Day. People are drinking, rivers are turning green (here in Chicago) and everyone feels a little luckier. Perhaps it’s the clovers. Or the red hair. Or the random sightings of leprechauns and treasure. Whatever it is, something’s happening that isn’t totally rational.
And we love that sort of stuff. Kiss me, I’m a social scientist.
According to social psychologist Ellen Langer, our perception of luck is a misleading but adaptive one. In games of chance where our actions have no influence over the outcomes, we tend to attribute success, incorrectly, to our skill. How fast or slow do you throw the dice? Do you throw it lightly for small numbers or heavy for big numbers? Do you pull the lever on the slot machine and hold it for a count of three before releasing? Did bringing your umbrella prevent the rain?
What all of these have in common is our desire to feel a sense of control in a world – and a life – that is often without it. This is what Ellen Langer calls the illusion of control and it is all about our tendency to overestimate how much influence we have over the world around us.
It’s also protective. We irrationally flip the other way when we are losing. It has no connection to skill, it was the wind. We protect ourselves from the pain of loss by tossing it back up to chance. I’m pretty sure the only reason I’m not an NFL quarterback is because I was just never in the right place at the right time. I clearly have the arm of Dan Marino.
Whether we’re trying to build ourselves up or escape our own criticism, we use chance, luck and skill to protect ourselves from injured identities. We’re also seeking out control, which is a construct many of us feel uncomfortable not having in our daily lives. Researchers call this the control heuristic. We seek out explanations that give us a greater sense of control. We want to feel as though we’ve intended an outcome and behaved in a way that guaranteed the outcome. This idea holds true whether it’s a game of chance or a game of skill. If the two are present, we feel a sense of control.
So what does a sense of control, and protecting it at all costs do for us? It keeps us going. It motivates us. So how do we use it more to our advantage? Psychology Today put together this wonderful article that suggests the following:
- See serendipity everywhere. If you believe you’re lucky, you’ll actually see more opportunities and windfalls than someone who believes they’re unlucky.
- Prime yourself for chance. In essence, be open to the world. When we broaden our perspective, we begin to recognize that there are many paths to success and many things that can help us get there.
- Go ahead, slack off. Don’t get too stuck in your thinking. Be curious. Often times, the best opportunities pass us by because we have developed old models for seeing the world. If we shake those up, we see new opportunities as well.
- Say yes. It’s that simple. Be willing to overcome anxiety and take the chance. It won’t pay off any other way.
- Embrace failure. If your question after the last one was that not every chance pays off, you’re right. And so you have to also embrace failure. Sometimes the opportunity you’re given doesn’t succeed and unless we step back and reassess, we’ll feel like we’re stuck in the circumstances of bad luck forever.
So ask yourself, are you feeling lucky? Are you?