Luck

December 13, 2010

No time to really think anything through today, but I resolved to try to do one blog post a day for as long as I can manage, so here’s something I found in Kevin Lewis’  social science research roundup (referred to in my post of Dec 8):

Hanaki, N., Kirman, A., Marsili, M., Born Under a Lucky Star?, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (2010), doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2010.11.009

Abstract

This paper suggests that people can learn to behave in a way which makes them persistently unlucky or lucky. Learning from one’s own experience, as it reinforces a few lucky or unlucky outcomes in early periods, will lead them to repeatedly make choices that lead to lucky or unlucky outcomes. In this situation, people have reasonably learned to behave as they do and their behavior is consistent with their experience. The lucky ones were not “born under a lucky star”; they learned to be lucky.

This is based on a mathematical study of strategies people use to find a parking spot. “Lucky” strategies are ones that maximize the possibility of finding a more favorable spot by declining to settle for a less favorable one, even at the risk of failing to find a spot at all and having to pay an exorbitant garage fee. Of course, the authors suggest, some people are inherently more risk averse than others and so more likely to “settle,” but even among equally risk-averse people some will manage in the course of time to “learn” lucky strategies, and others will not. The mathematics of this is clearly way beyond me – things like “Nash equilibria” – but like a lot of things that are beyond me, it is still suggestive…

This reminds me that Larry Niven hypothesized in one of his Ringworld novels that luck might actually be hereditary. He posited a situation in which, in a typical sci fi overpopulated future, reproductive rights (above one child per couple or something like that, as I recall) are allocated in a lottery. If luck (whatever it really is, however it really works) is something that can be inherited, then, by Darwinian selection, after a number of generations the descendants of a direct line of lottery winners will be extremely lucky…

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