Maria Konnikova and the Luck Delusion

October 27, 2017

Later this evening, I’m going to be handing the far-too-heavy and frankly-dangerous Balles Prize in Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova, the New Yorker writer and author of books including The Confidence Game and an upcoming book on poker. (She tells me not to worry about the weight of the award, she does yoga.)

I mention this here because at the top of her presentation, Konnikova asked the audience whether we feel that we are “lucky.” A good chunk of folks raised their hands to say yes, they’re lucky, by far the most indicated that they do not believe themselves to be lucky or unlucky (they’re skeptics, after all), and when she asked who thinks they are unlucky, I was (as far as I could tell) the lone hand to pop up, and rather enthusiastically.

(I should clarify. This is my shtick. I’m actually astoundingly lucky in countless ways, but I kind of do this Charlie Brown-esque everything’s-terrible thing as part of my persona and various pathologies. So it was mostly performative.)

“You and I will need to talk, sir,” Konnikova said to me from the stage with a wry smile, not knowing at the time that I would be her award presenter. Because I’m human, I found this charming collection of interactions, within this context, to be, well, what…lucky? Something like that.

Which of course it wasn’t, not in the sense of some mystical force called “luck” ensuring that I had a somewhat humorously ironic connection with Konnikova. It was just a thing that happened.

Here’s what’s really lucky. “Out of all the potential people that could have been born, you were born,” she told us. “You are here. And that is awesome.” It’s not mystical, but it is kind of a big deal.

It’s a big deal and it was out of our control, so whatever “luck” brought us into being evaporated as soon as we began existence. But in other aspects of our lives, we operate under the illusion of control, which Konnikova exemplified by citing a study involving coin-flip predictions, where subjects really believed that they could “practice” and “get better” at guessing heads or tails. Which is of course nonsense. And yet it feels real to people.

This manifests in the gambling world, in which Konnikova has spent a year of her life to research her new book, in two key falacies: One is the Gambler’s Fallacy, where people believe that some outcome of a game of chance is “due” to occur for whatever reason, which of course it isn’t. The other is the Hot Hand Fallacy, where a player or a team will believe they have some injection of luck pushing them through a string of successes. That one’s more complicated.

But, Konnikova says that generally, “Chance is random, it really doesn’t care what’s already happened. At all.” The Hot Hand Fallacy only shows little signs of validity because of psychology. In a competitive sport, greater confidence can improve a player’s performance or maybe intimidate the opponent, increasing the chances for additional success.

What’s the lesson of all this? Just sneer at folks who believe in luck? Hell no. “Shit happens,” Konnikova says, and it’s something we need to just accept. We need to embrace the confidence and happiness we get when good shit happens, and acknowledge that bad shit will also happen, and simply make the most of all of it.

“Thinking about luck in this way will make us better players at life,” she said.

Okay, okay. I’ll try.

You can watch Konnikova’s presentation at last year’s CSICon here at CFI’s Reasonable Talk.