In events where non-random factors such as decision-making and competence also come into play, it becomes a little trickier to determine exactly what causes what we often perceive as bad luck, Zwick says.
“When we think of someone like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and ask why they’re successful, the natural answer is to say that they’re very talented,” he says. “However, there are also many other people who are talented, who started businesses but were not successful.”
By looking at a sequence of decisions and outcomes over time, it may be possible to identify someone who repeatedly suffers misfortune because he or she makes bad decisions, or mistakes in execution. (Think of a car manufacturer that habitually scrimps on parts to keep prices down, leading to a reputation for shoddy products that drives consumers away.) But often, Zwick notes, it’s difficult to filter out the influence of randomness.
The problem is that even when sequences of bad events are caused purely by random chance, our minds still crave an explanation.
“We believe in bad luck,” explains psychologist and skeptical investigator Michael Shermer, author of the 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. He says that our ability to find patterns in masses of sensory data—a crucial skill that helped humans to survive and thrive—also tends to spot patterns in random noise, where none actually exist.
“Unfortunately, we have patternicity, but we aren’t equipped with a good baloney detector.”
Indeed, British psychologist Peter Bentley, author of the 2009 book Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day, says that bad luck seems to afflict people who believe in it.
He notes, for example, that studies have shown that people who believe in bad luck will have more accidents on Friday the 13, traditionally perceived as an unlucky day.
“I think those that believe they suffer from chronic bad luck, are almost certainly those people who have a very ingrained mindset about how their life is going,” Bentley writes in an email. “Some people learn from mishaps, they see the positive, even turn them into amusing stories. Others dwell on their perceived misfortunes, and start to perceive everything as yet another example of bad luck. Where one person may see missing a bus as an opportunity to take a look around a nice store, another may turn the experience into a depressing mope about how nothing in their life ever goes right.”
But that subjective aspect of bad luck also makes it possible for people to rid themselves of the perception that they suffer from it. Zwick and colleagues, in an experiment detailed in a 2012 article in Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that subjects who experienced misfortune were more willing to take risks again, if they had washed their hands -- a traditional superstitious ritual that supposedly cleanses a person of bad luck.