Do you feel lucky? Ever walk under ladders? Have a lucky charm? Think bad events happen in threes? Knock on Wood? Pull a wishbone? Cross your fingers? The invention of the concept of luck is likely a combination of people’s attempt to control a world in which they feel powerless and our ability to see and remember causal associations between actions. Being able to see what long-term effects our actions have on the world is an advantage but this can lead to seeing causation where there is none. Luck is a special case of this, if a string of bad things happen to us there must be a cause, right? Conversely if bad events are caused then so are good ones, if something has a cause then we may be able to influence it. Hence charms, rituals and idiosyncratic actions to help our chances of getting good luck.

By connecting our actions to effects in the larger world we can effectively carry out our daily business, live, work, play and generally function in society. This ability however leaves us open to seeing causal connections where there are not only none but absolutely no chance of one. Thus athletes see a connection between their underwear and the outcome of a game, tourists to Hawaii become convinced of a curse on lava rocks and people throw salt over their shoulders. The fact that random events occur all the time means that there is a high chance that you will do something unusual or that sticks in your mind right before an actual meaningful event. Those among us who are prone to do so may see a relationship between the two.

Amazing things happen every day to someone, it would be more amazing if they didn’t. I prefer the attitude of the following quote: “Luck is probability taken personally.” Chip Denman – statistician