Mike Aitken on Being Lucky

17:53 Monday 5th September 2011
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

ANDY BURROWS: The new ITV show Red or Black was watched by millions over the weekend. 1000 people keep betting on either red or black, until there is only one person left. Then that person has a chance to win £1 million, simply by choosing red or black on a giant roulette wheel. Two nights in, and two fellows have done it so far. And it’s certainly prompted some debate in our house, because of the number of people who were quite close to winning who would then go on to say, actually, I’m not a very lucky person. Are people who think they are lucky generally more successful in life? I put this to Dr Mike Aitkin earlier on today. He’s from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge.(TAPE)
MIKE AITKEN: There are some of us, the people who think they’re lucky, who turn out to make the most of the opportunities that come their way. So in the end, they tend to do a bit better in life than the people who think of themselves as unlucky, probably because the people who think of themselves as luckier are ready to take the chance, ready to talk to the new person, ready to take a little risk, more than someone who thought they were unlucky, who would be less likely to.
ANDY BURROWS: Simply by taking up more opportunities?
MIKE AITKEN: Well, that’s certainly been the case in some small laboratory settings. The people who think they are more lucky do slightly better at certain little tasks they are given, because they’re more open to a range of information, because they’re more ready to take a chance, and more open to different opportunities.
ANDY BURROWS: Is there any such thing as luck, though?
MIKE AITKEN: Well obviously in some ways belief about luck is almost like a religious belief, if you can’t tell people who believe fervently in luck that it doesn’t exist. And it obviously makes sense retrospectively when we’re talking about the past. You can think of days when good things happened to us, and those are lucky days. And we can say that there are days where less good things happened to us, and those are unlucky days. It’s a bit different, thinking about whether tomorrow is going to be a lucky day or an unlucky day. As far as we’re aware, there’s really no difference in a lucky day, except the fact that the good things happened. So luck is an explanation of what happened, not really a cause of what happened.
ANDY BURROWS: Right. I thought I had a lucky day, a few weeks ago, because I put my hand in my pocket , and I found some money that I didn’t realise I’d got. And it’s little things like that, isn’t it. Funnily enough, we were in the supermarket at the time, and I found this money with such glee, that I said to my wife, and I feel almost ashamed by telling you this, I said to my wife, let’s go and buy a scratchcard. (THEY LAUGH). And do you know what? We won. Hurray. But then I tried it again and we didn’t.
MIKE AITKEN: Ah well. I think my wife likes to play the scratchcards. And she tells me she does it because it would be so embarrassing for me, as a psychologist and statistician, if I were to win the Lottery. I’d never be able to look my colleagues in the face again.
ANDY BURROWS: So what can we do with our luck, do you think? Or, conversely, can it have a detrimental effect on our lives, if we think we’re lucky all the time?
MIKE AITKEN: Well some of the work that I’m involved in in the University, especially with my colleague Luke Clark, we’ve been looking at the kind of thoughts people have when they’re gambling. And one of the things that is very clear is that people who gamble, tend to think very firmly in terms of luck. So people who play blackjack think that some of the game is down to chance, and some of it’s down to luck. And they see those as very different. There’s personal luck, which is your fault, and chance which isn’t. And we see things people are thinking like, if a load of bad things have just happened, a win is somehow due. Or if they’ve had a large number of wins on the trot in a roulette, then maybe they’re on a kind of roll, and they’re more likely to win next time. And these what we call cognitive distortions about luck, that fail to understand the independence of random events like a roulette wheel, we find that the more problems people have with their gambling, the problem gamblers rather than regular gamblers, make many more of these kinds of thoughts. So in some sense, if you’re a gambler, it’s a bad idea to think too much in terms of luck.
ANDY BURROWS: I just want to ask you a couple more things before I let you go. Red or Black, the programme which launched over the weekend on ITV, is essentially a game of heads or tails. Contestants have to get it right ten times. They have to guess the outcome correctly ten times, in order to even have a go at winning £1 million. What’s the probability of getting heads or tails right ten times?
MIKE AITKEN: That’s quite a nice easy one. It’s almost exactly one in a thousand, by which I mean, if 1000 people, in fact 1024 people all have a go, you’d expect, on average, one of them to get it right. If you did it, but I imagine you’ve probably got better things to do with your time …
ANDY BURROWS: Tragically I haven’t probably.
MIKE AITKEN: And kept tossing, and tried to get ten in a row, you’d expect about one in every around thousand. That’s because you’ve got a one in two, or 50/50 chance to do it the first time, a one in four to do it twice in a row, which is one over two squared. And to do it ten times in a row it’s actually one over two to the power of ten, which is 1024. So it’s almost exactly one in 1000, the possibility. So if you had 1000 people to begine with, you’d expect on average, one of them to get all ten correct. (LIVE)
ANDY BURROWS: Dr Mike Aitkin that was, from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, speaking to me earlier on.this afternoon. If you want to find out more about his work, if you go to the Bang Goes the theory website, the BBC Show, Bang Goes the Theory, you can take part in a little study on risk, which was designed by Dr Mike Aitken.