Ten years ago, I started to investigate why some people are consistently lucky while others always encounter ill fortune. I placed adverts in newspapers, asking for exceptionally lucky or unlucky people to contact me. Over the years, 400 men and women have let me put their lives and minds under the microscope. I interviewed them, asked them to keep diaries, complete questionnaires and take part in various experiments. In one early test, we examined whether lucky and unlucky people might experience different levels of success on the National Lottery. We quickly discovered that there was no link between luck and Lottery success. Why was this?
Well, the outcome of the Lottery is the result of pure chance, and it would therefore be very strange if anyone could predict whether they will consistently win or lose. So why did our participants consider themselves lucky or unlucky? Because they were talking about being lucky or unlucky in life - always being in the right or wrong place, getting more or less than their fair share of lucky breaks, and so on.
Our findings revealed that this type of luck is not a magical ability or the result of random chance. Instead, although most people have almost no insight into the real causes of their good and bad luck, their thoughts and behaviour are responsible for much of their fortune.
Take the case of chance opportunities. Lucky people consistently encounter opportunities whereas unlucky people do not. I carried out an experiment to determine whether this was due to differences in their ability to spot such opportunities. I gave people a news-paper and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. I had placed a large message halfway through the paper announcing: "Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £150." The message, in 2in-high type, took up half the page. It was staring everyone in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it, whereas the lucky people tended to spot it. Other tests revealed that unlucky people are generally more tense and anxious than lucky people, which disrupts their ability to notice the unexpected. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make friends. They look through newspapers determined to find a certain type of job advert and so miss other types. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.
Another important principle revolved around the way in which lucky and unlucky people dealt with the ill fortune in their lives. I asked people to imagine that they were waiting to be served in a bank. Suddenly, an armed robber enters the bank, fires a shot and the bullet hits them in the arm. Would this event be lucky or unlucky?
Unlucky people tended to say that it would be just their bad luck to be in the bank during the robbery. In contrast, lucky people often commented on how the situation could have been much worse. As one lucky participant commented, it's lucky because you could have been shot in the head - also, you could sell your story to the newspapers and make some money. In imagining how the bad luck they encounter could have been worse, lucky people feel better about their lives. This, in turn, helps keep their expectations for the future high and increases the likelihood of their continuing to lead a lucky life.
Towards the end of the research, I carried out some experiments to examine whether people's luck could be enhanced by techniques designed to help them think and behave like a lucky person. For example, participants were shown how to be more open to opportunities and deal more effectively with bad luck. The results were dramatic. After just a month, 80 per cent of people returned happier and luckier. Unlucky people had become lucky, and lucky people had become even luckier.
Take the case of Patricia, 27, who had experienced bad luck for much of her life. A few years ago, she started work as an airline cabin-crew member and quickly gained a reputation as a bad omen. One of her first flights had to make an unplanned stopover because of some abusive passengers, another was struck by lightning and a third was forced to make an emergency landing. Patricia was also unlucky in love. But after a few weeks at luck school, her bad luck had vanished. At the end of the experiment, she declared that she felt like a completely different person. For once, everything was working out her way. Other volunteers had found partners through chance encounters and job promotions through lucky breaks.
This research revealed a new way of looking at luck and the role it plays in our lives. It demonstrated that much of the fortune we encounter is a result of our thoughts and behaviour. People are unlikely to get lucky by winning the Lottery or doing well at the casino. However, they can increase the luck they experience in their daily lives by changing the way they think and behave.
Professor Richard Wiseman is a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. His The Luck Factor and Did You Spot the Gorilla?: how to see opportunities are published by Arrow Books