This week’s entry: Luck
What it’s about: In Obi-Wan Kenobi’s experience, there’s no such thing. But the non-Jedi among us have believed in fate, providence, and superstition since prehistoric times. The belief that good things happen to us not for arbitrary reasons, but because we’re personally blessed with good luck, is a very appealing idea, so it’s no wonder it’s stuck with us. But as anyone who’s visited a casino for more than an hour or said, “We probably don’t need a condom this time” knows, everyone’s luck runs out eventually.
Strangest fact: Luck wasn’t always called luck. In the late 1400s, it began appearing in English as a gambling term, and was probably derived from the Russian luchaj or the Slavic lukyj, both meaning destiny. Before that, the word for fortune smiling upon you was speed, in the Godspeed sense. At some point, English adopted the Dutch spoed, or the German spood, both meaning haste, and speed and luck each took on their present meanings.
Biggest controversy: Statisticians actually hold up gamblers’ beliefs as examples of what not to do. The gambler’s fallacy is used as a classic example of something widely believed that’s demonstrably untrue. It refers to the belief that if a random occurrence hasn’t happened in a while, it’s more likely to happen (or the reverse of that) later. For example, if six hasn’t come up on the roulette wheel, it’s certain to appear soon, when in fact the odds are 37-1 no matter what has happened in the past. Despite this, the mindset that one should bet on the Washington Generals because they’re “due” stubbornly persists.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Luck has some scientific basis. A 10-year study by psychologist Richard Wiseman concluded that there is such thing as good and bad luck, but that we create it for ourselves. People who generally have good luck do so because they create and notice opportunities, make sound decisions, and maintain a positive attitude. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Four-leaf clovers notwithstanding, the Irish are not terribly lucky. The phrase “luck of the Irish” was originally intended to be bitterly ironic, attributed to a people who lived with centuries of brutal foreign occupation punctuated by the occasional devastating famine. At some point, however, the meaning got flipped—probably when frequent misuse turned into accepted use, which literally happens all the time.
Also noteworthy: Good luck charms can be something unusual or completely mundane. The four-leaf clover is lucky because it is rare—discovering one proves that the finder has good luck. The same goes for the white elephant. But bamboo is considered lucky in China, despite growing in nearly every climate and being used for food, medicine, paper, and building material. Likewise, the number seven is considered lucky in Western cultures despite cropping up roughly one-tenth of the time. At least the Chinese consider eight lucky for a reason; in Chinese, it sounds similar to the word for fortune.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The luck page’s section on numerology mentions that lucky numbers are critical to astrology, but also important in parapsychology, which we were astonished to learn is a real discipline and not invented for Ghostbusters. While widely regarded as pseudoscience, the field of parapsychology has its own scientific journals and privately funded research into what can only be considered occult phenomena.
Further down the wormhole: Most religions have no place for luck. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam officially say good fortune comes solely from God’s will. Hindus believe good luck can only be obtained by the devout. And the Buddha himself declared there was no such thing—everything must have a cause, and good or bad fortune was the result of karma. But luck does feature prominently in Voodoo, whose practitioners in the Western Hemisphere use charms and amulets to bring good luck to themselves or bad luck to others. We’ll look at other aspects of the oft-misunderstood religion next week.