Why do we believe in luck?

Fingers crossed behind back

Is there such a thing as a lucky person or a lucky streak? And does belief in good and bad luck play a part in whether we are prepared to take chances, asks Megan Lane.

I won a pair of cinema tickets recently. Then a free haircut. While sceptical about luck, I couldn't help but wonder if it might run in threes.

The next day, I had a third stroke of luck. A mugging. Was it bad luck that I had my bag snatched? Or good luck that I was unhurt?

Neither. It was a chance event. When weighing the risks of walking down an unfamiliar street, feeling lucky didn't come into it (much). Subconsciously, I balanced the time of day - early evening - and the presence of street lighting against the area being unexpectedly isolated.

Are you a risk-taker?

Black cat
  • Lab UK's Big Risk Test takes about 25 minutes
  • Includes attitudes to luck
  • Asks users to weigh risks of activities such as air travel, gardening and smoking

"Luck is a really interesting aspect of risk and chance," says Cambridge University psychologist Dr Mike Aitken, co-creator of BBC Lab UK's new Big Risk Test, which explores the type of person likely to be a risk-taker or risk-averse.

"We can all remember days when good things happened to us, and days when less-good things happened, and we attribute the difference to a lucky day and an unlucky day. You could argue that luck exists in that sense."

But some people believe luck influences external events - that if they buy a lottery ticket on their lucky day, they'll be more likely to win.

"That's a much harder belief to justify, because there's no way the day you buy your lottery ticket can influence the likelihood that you're going to win," says Aitken.

"Research has suggested that people who think of themselves as lucky actually are lucky, because they are more willing to take advantage of opportunities."

Luck under the microscope

We've all come across humans acting irrationally. But could there be a rational reason for doing so? The scientist in me would delight in this being rigorously tested.

Ideally, we'd investigate an irrational behaviour that varies between people, but can be manipulated experimentally. What better than the belief in luck: the idea that luck is an attribute that you can possess - or even control?

Our understanding is still at an early stage. We can roughly measure this belief using simple questionnaires, and link it to aspects of mental health, propensity to gamble, or general optimism.

Do these suggest an evolutionary gain from feeling lucky? I'm more intrigued by the idea that people might benefit socially from being seen as "lucky".

I have a suspicion that under my ultra-rational veneer lurk a fair number of irrational instincts.

The BBC's risk test aims to find out whether belief in luck affects how we perceive the risks of day to day life.

In part, it draws on the BIGL - belief in good luck - scale developed in 1997 by two Canadian psychologists. This does what it says on the tin, measuring the extent to which a person believes in luck. Some think luck influences events in their favour; others think luck is random and unreliable.

The Canadian study that led to the BIGL scale debunked ideas that belief in luck was related to a person's self-esteem and general life satisfaction.

But those who believe they are inherently lucky tend to be of an optimistic bent, and get more optimistic about the likelihood of future success after a seemingly lucky event - a "lucky break" makes them more confident and optimistic.

Feeling lucky

Believing that one's success is down, at least in part, to good luck leads to attempts to control it.

Athletes and gamblers often carry out superstitious rituals in the middle of a winning streak, such as wearing the same lucky shirt, or eating the same lucky meal. Because then they might keep on winning.

Touch wood.

How to measure risk - and does luck exist?

There are two approaches to deciding whether to take a chance and leave the outcome to luck, whether it's placing a bet, hang-gliding or even deciding whether to take an umbrella in case it rains - head v gut.

"There's risk as analysis, where you work out the odds of [winning] the lottery," says test co-creator David Spiegelhalter, professor for the understanding of risk at University of Cambridge.

"Then there's risk as feeling, which can be influenced by you feeling 'this is a good day for me, I'm going to take this risk, do this bold thing'."

Perhaps that's why I didn't turn back and instead took what looked like a shortcut down a lonely road - I was feeling lucky. Maybe I should have crossed my fingers. Or was there a black cat that crossed my path?

Making origami cranes for the Senbazuru (a thousand cranes) campaign, with participants worldwide Lucky charms are used all over the world

But believing in luck can serve a useful function. psychologists say.

It may help us coping with chance events, such as being involved in an accident, a mugging or natural disaster, as it can help people feel more optimistic when circumstances are beyond their control.

Maybe I should have bought a lottery ticket that day after all...

Below is a selection of your stories of luck.

I passed my driving test on the 3rd attempt (third time lucky) on Friday 13th 2005.

Michael Egan, St Helens, England

For two years a co-worker & I flipped a coin to see who would go to break first. We used his coins, my coins, caught the coin, let the coin drop, let other people toss the coin etc. He won every toss. Don't try to tell me there is no such thing as luck. Unfortunately I have none.

Joe Lunchbox, Jacksonville US

I have been told I'm a lucky person, therefore, I have always thought I can manipulate my good luck by choosing which days I will be lucky, or possibly lucky. I know when I'm going to have good luck, win on a scratchy, the lotto, the pokies, or an oar I won at a boat race, once, I have a feeling of great calm, like a calm before the storm, and eureka - I win something. But that's because I take chances. If I didn't take a risk, what good is luck?

Jane Hyland, Pittsburgh PA USA

My mother liked to gamble and so she told me that I was a lucky person, since I weighed 7 pounds and 11 ounces when I was born and was born on the 7th. I don't know if I am luckier than most people, but at the age of 53, I have already lived 10 years longer than both of my parents and my older brother. I do win small things and find that if I don't push my luck, I end up winning. I do believe that if you think you are lucky, then you will be.

Luci, Copenhagen, Denmark

Being from a nautical family we have various things which we try not to do; set sail on a (long) voyage on a Friday, paint a boat green, rename a boat and whistling. Some of these were taken to such an extent by my boat builder grandfather that he wouldn't launch a new boat on a Friday. If a customer asked for it to be launched on a Friday, he would drop it in the water the day before and then haul it out again ready for the customer to watch it being launched for the "first time" the following day.

Tim, Colchester, Essex

A black cat ran in front of my car - splat. Within the next two weeks I was 1. arrested 2. got a parking fine 3. got three points and a fine 4. lost a £210,000 contract 5. got another parking fine 6. four of my number came up on the lottery, but I had forgotten to buy a ticket. Up till then I had never been superstitious, but that lot seemed like "evidence".

Alasdair Macmillan, Banbury, Oxon

Tabletop wargamers, like gamblers, roll a lot of dice and often become very superstitious about them. Common conditions include never referring to a "missile launcher" because it contains the word "miss", avoiding rolling dice on their own because dice can't handle the pressure, and rolling dice before games to "use up the ones". Indeed, one popular games company's April Fools joke was a 126-page book on how to roll dice.

Tim Peers, Great Yarmouth

My sister always seems to win on scratch cards much more than the rest of the family put together. Then I realised, she buys more scratch cards than the rest of the family put together.

Ed, London

Magpies. Singles are bad luck, unless there's someone else to see it too - then it's negated. My housemate saw a singleton on the morning she went to work; later that day I was in a car crash. Couples, however, are very good luck. One has to hope that the omens are out there and easily readable.

Alice, Eastleigh, Hampshire

I am quite prone to splinters but hopefully won't get any today - touch wood.

David Clark, Gloucestershire

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