“Luck is probability taken personally” – Chip Denman

Recently, I watched a programme by Derren Brown about ‘The Secret of Luck’. He discovered that by spreading a rumour of a lucky statue about the town of Todmorden, many of the locals believed their luck subsequently increased. However some of the more ‘unlucky’ locals believed it had no effect on them, and despite Derren Brown placing ‘lucky’ opportunities in their path, they would choose to ignore them. Luck, Derren Brown concluded, is about creating and recognising opportunities.

This was a definition of luck I had never heard of before, and although Derren Brown isn’t known for creating scientific studies, his idea seemed a reasonable explanation. Often people believe that luck is out of our control, and occurs due to chance events. However it has been suggested, not just by Derren Brown, that whilst chance events are based on probability that we cannot manipulate, these events are infrequent, and our ‘luck’ is often due to our own involvement and choices (Wiseman, 2003).

It is clear that there is some scrutiny on one singular definition. The inability to agree on the meaning of luck occurs because the term is a theoretical invention. It is a construct, which is when a term is produced to explain more observable facts through inferences made (MacCorquodale & Meehl, 1948). Constructs cannot be directly measured, so an operational definition must be developed, to allow at least an attempt to create a scientific basis for the term. An operational definition determines how the construct should be measured. However, how can you accurately measure luck? Constructs themselves are not directly measurable, and because of this operationalizing them can be difficult.

Derren Brown’s experiment was based on research by Wiseman (2003), who found that those who maximise chance opportunities and have a positive attitude towards ‘bad luck’ are considered lucky, as they are more likely to recognise and grasp opportunities. This was highlighted in his study, which can be seen here. From Brown’s and Wiseman’s research a question arises, can measuring the amount of opportunities participants take be a way of operationalizing luck?

The nature of constructs makes answering this question difficult, as measures are often based on subjective, self-report methods (Blascovich & Tomaka, 2001). It is difficult to conceive a behavioural or physiological measure, and even if one of these measures are created they are not necessarily valid. For example, using heart rate to measure anxiety may seem to be reflective, however there are many other reasons why a person’s heart rate may increase, and it is most certainly not the only variable involved in anxiety. Luck, like anxiety, would require multiple measures for us to gain a fuller understanding of the construct. We cannot assume that luck is completely measured by opportunities.

Another example where this problem occurs is self-esteem, which has faced large scale disagreement over how it should be measured. As Crandall (1973, as cited in Blascovich & Tomaka 2001) suggested, “Self-esteem has been related to almost every variable at one time or another”. This is shown by Blascovich & Tomaka (2001) who found that there have been over 40 scales created to measure self-esteem, all based on subjective methods.

Inevitably, the operationalizing of constructs is always going to be questionable. Concepts such as self-esteem, anxiety and luck are subjective and have several operational definitions. Therefore attempting to discover a singular way to measure these constructs is futile. So is luck “probability taken personally?”. We cannot deny that Brown’s and Wiseman’s idea seems a logical explanation, but then again, when is anything ever that simple?

Blascovich, J. & Tomaka, J. (2001). Measures of self esteem. In Robinson, J. P., Shaver, P. R. & Wrightsman, L. S. (Eds.). Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes. USA: Elsevier Science.

Delving Deeper: The Secret of Luck. (2011). Retrieved February 16th, 2012, from http://www.channel4.com/programmes/derren-brown-the-experiments/articles/delving-deeper-the-secret-of-luck.

MacCorquodale, K.,& Meehl, P.E. (1948). On a distinction between hypothetical constructs and intervening variables. Psychological review, 55, 95-107.

Wiseman, R. (2003). The Luck Factor. London, UK: Random House

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