Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think

When people see themselves as self-made, they tend to be less generous and public-spirited.

Edmon de Haro

I’m a lucky man. Perhaps the most extreme example of my considerable good fortune occurred one chilly Ithaca morning in November 2007, while I was playing tennis with my longtime friend and collaborator, the Cornell psychologist Tom Gilovich. He later told me that early in the second set, I complained of feeling nauseated. The next thing he knew, I was lying motionless on the court.

He yelled for someone to call 911, and then started pounding on my chest—something he’d seen many times in movies but had never been trained to do. He got a cough out of me, but seconds later I was again motionless with no pulse. Very shortly, an ambulance showed up.

Ithaca’s ambulances are dispatched from the other side of town, more than five miles away. How did this one arrive so quickly? By happenstance, just before I collapsed, ambulances had been dispatched to two separate auto accidents close to the tennis center. Since one of them involved no serious injuries, an ambulance was able to peel off and travel just a few hundred yards to me. EMTs put electric paddles on my chest and rushed me to our local hospital. There, I was loaded onto a helicopter and flown to a larger hospital in Pennsylvania, where I was placed on ice overnight.

Doctors later told me that I’d suffered an episode of sudden cardiac arrest. Almost 90 percent of people who experience such episodes don’t survive, and the few who do are typically left with significant impairments. And for three days after the event, my family tells me, I spoke gibberish. But on day four, I was discharged from the hospital with a clear head. Two weeks later, I was playing tennis with Tom again.

If that ambulance hadn’t happened to have been nearby, I would be dead.

Not all random events lead to favorable outcomes, of course. Mike Edwards is no longer alive because chance frowned on him. Edwards, formerly a cellist in the British pop band the Electric Light Orchestra, was driving on a rural road in England in 2010 when a 1,300-pound bale of hay rolled down a steep hillside and landed on his van, crushing him. By all accounts, he was a decent, peaceful man. That a bale of hay snuffed out his life was bad luck, pure and simple.

Most people will concede that I’m fortunate to have survived and that Edwards was unfortunate to have perished. But in other arenas, randomness can play out in subtler ways, causing us to resist explanations that involve luck. In particular, many of us seem uncomfortable with the possibility that personal success might depend to any significant extent on chance. As E. B. White once wrote, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”

My having cheated death does not make me an authority on luck. But it has motivated me to learn much more about the subject than I otherwise would have. In the process, I have discovered that chance plays a far larger role in life outcomes than most people realize. And yet, the luckiest among us appear especially unlikely to appreciate our good fortune. According to the Pew Research Center, people in higher income brackets are much more likely than those with lower incomes to say that individuals get rich primarily because they work hard. Other surveys bear this out: Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.

That’s troubling, because a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.

Happily, though, when people are prompted to reflect on their good fortune, they become much more willing to contribute to the common good.

Psychologists use the term hindsight bias to describe our tendency to think, after the fact, that an event was predictable even when it wasn’t. This bias operates with particular force for unusually successful outcomes.

In his commencement address to Princeton University’s 2012 graduating class, Michael Lewis described the series of chance events that helped make him—already privileged by virtue of his birth into a well-heeled family and his education at Princeton—a celebrated author:

One night I was invited to a dinner where I sat next to the wife of a big shot of a big Wall Street investment bank, Salomon Brothers. She more or less forced her husband to give me a job. I knew next to nothing about Salomon Brothers. But Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was being reinvented—into the Wall Street we’ve come to know and love today. When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job in the place to observe the growing madness: They turned me into the house derivatives expert.

On the basis of his experiences at Salomon, Lewis wrote his 1989 best seller, Liar’s Poker, which described how Wall Street financial maneuvering was transforming the world.

All of a sudden people were telling me I was a born writer. This was absurd. Even I could see that there was another, more true narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm to write the story of the age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? … This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck—especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable.

Our understanding of human cognition provides one important clue as to why we may see success as inevitable: the availability heuristic. Using this cognitive shortcut, we tend to estimate the likelihood of an event or outcome based on how readily we can recall similar instances. Successful careers, of course, result from many factors, including hard work, talent, and chance. Some of those factors recur often, making them easy to recall. But others happen sporadically and therefore get short shrift when we construct our life stories.

Little wonder that when talented, hardworking people in developed countries strike it rich, they tend to ascribe their success to talent and hard work above all else. Most of them are vividly aware of how hard they’ve worked and how talented they are. They’ve been working hard and solving difficult problems every day for many years! In some abstract sense, they probably do know that they might not have performed as well in some other environment. Yet their day-to-day experience provides few reminders of how fortunate they were not to have been born in, say, war-torn Zimbabwe.

Our personal narratives are biased in a second way: Events that work to our disadvantage are easier to recall than those that affect us positively. My friend Tom Gilovich invokes a metaphor involving headwinds and tailwinds to describe this asymmetry.

When you’re running or bicycling into the wind, you’re very aware of it. You just can’t wait till the course turns around and you’ve got the wind at your back. When that happens, you feel great. But then you forget about it very quickly—you’re just not aware of the wind at your back. And that’s just a fundamental feature of how our minds, and how the world, works. We’re just going to be more aware of those barriers than of the things that boost us along.

That we tend to overestimate our own responsibility for our successes is not to say that we shouldn’t take pride in them. Pride is a powerful motivator; moreover, a tendency to overlook luck’s importance may be perversely adaptive, as it encourages us to persevere in the face of obstacles.

And yet failing to consider the role of chance has a dark side, too, making fortunate people less likely to pass on their good fortune.

The one dimension of personal luck that transcends all others is to have been born in a highly developed country. I often think of Birkhaman Rai, the Bhutanese man who was my cook when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. He was perhaps the most resourceful person I’ve ever met. Though he was never taught to read, he could perform virtually any task in his environment to a high standard, from thatching a roof to repairing a clock to driving a tough bargain without alienating people. Even so, the meager salary I was able to pay him was almost certainly the high point of his life’s earnings trajectory. If he’d grown up in a rich country, he would have been far more prosperous, perhaps even spectacularly successful.

Being born in a favorable environment is an enormous stroke of luck. But maintaining such an environment requires high levels of public investment in everything from infrastructure to education—something Americans have lately been unwilling to support. Many factors have contributed to this reticence, but one in particular stands out: budget deficits resulting from a long-term decline in the United States’ top marginal tax rate.

A recent study by the political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright found that the top 1 percent of U.S. wealth-holders are “extremely active politically” and are much more likely than the rest of the American public to resist taxation, regulation, and government spending. Given that the wealthiest Americans believe their prosperity is due, above all else, to their own talent and hard work, is this any wonder? Surely it’s a short hop from overlooking luck’s role in success to feeling entitled to keep the lion’s share of your income—and to being reluctant to sustain the public investments that let you succeed in the first place.

And yet this state of affairs does not appear to be inevitable: Recent research suggests that being prompted to recognize luck can encourage generosity. For example, Yuezhou Huo, a former research assistant of mine, designed an experiment in which she promised subjects a cash prize in exchange for completing a survey about a positive thing that had recently happened to them. She asked one group of participants to list factors beyond their control that contributed to the event, a second group to list personal qualities and actions that contributed to it, and a control group to simply explain why the good thing had happened. After completing the survey, subjects were given an opportunity to donate some or all of their reward to charity. Those who had been prompted to credit external causes—many mentioned luck, as well as factors such as supportive spouses, thoughtful teachers, and financial aid—donated 25 percent more than those who’d been asked to credit personal qualities or choices. Donations from the control group fell roughly midway between those from the other two groups.

Experiments by David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University, offer additional evidence that gratitude might lead to greater willingness to support the common good. In one widely cited study, he and his co-authors devised a clever manipulation to make a group of laboratory subjects feel grateful, and then gave them an opportunity to take actions that would benefit others at their own expense. Subjects in whom gratitude had been stoked were subsequently about 25 percent more generous toward strangers than were members of a control group. These findings are consistent with those of other academic psychologists. Taken together, the research suggests that when we are reminded of luck’s importance, we are much more likely to plow some of our own good fortune back into the common good.

In an unexpected twist, we may even find that recognizing our luck increases our good fortune. Social scientists have been studying gratitude intensively for almost two decades, and have found that it produces a remarkable array of physical, psychological, and social changes. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami have been among the most prolific contributors to this effort. In one of their collaborations, they asked a first group of people to keep diaries in which they noted things that had made them feel grateful, a second group to note things that had made them feel irritated, and a third group to simply record events. After 10 weeks, the researchers reported dramatic changes in those who had noted their feelings of gratitude. The newly grateful had less frequent and less severe aches and pains and improved sleep quality. They reported greater happiness and alertness. They described themselves as more outgoing and compassionate, and less likely to feel lonely and isolated. No similar changes were observed in the second or third groups. Other psychologists have documented additional benefits of gratitude, such as reduced anxiety and diminished aggressive impulses.

Economists like to talk about scarcity, but its logic doesn’t always hold up in the realm of human emotion. Gratitude, in particular, is a currency we can spend freely without fear of bankruptcy. Indeed, if you talk with others about their experiences with luck, as I have, you may discover that with only a little prompting, even people who have never given much thought to the subject are surprisingly willing to rethink their life stories, recalling lucky breaks they’ve enjoyed along the way. And because these conversations almost always leave participants feeling happier, it’s not hard to imagine them becoming contagious

This essay is adapted from Robert H. Frank’s new book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.