But part of the reason that the lottery has taken quite such a hold on the public imagination is that it has rekindled an obsession with luck and good fortune. Hitherto, considered a subject unworthy of the thinking classes - Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Shallow men believe in luck, strong men believe in cause and effect" - luck is now beginning to exercise academic minds. And the question they are asking is an old one: Why do some people have all the luck?
A recent American study isolated a type of mildly brain-damaged person who, despite good intelligence and memory, nearly always fouls up. Scientists at the University of Iowa College of Medicine set up an experiment whereby two groups of patients were given cards, some of which awarded money and others penalties. The group with brain defects took longer to assess the difference between the cards, and even after finding out the difference, still chose the penalty cards: unlike the control group, they acquired no "hunch" that the cards were duff.
The study concluded that the mildly brain-damaged probably made bad decisions due to the presence of damage in the ventromedial frontal cortices, which is believed to store data about past rewards and punishments. Whatever allows other people access to their "intuition" or "gut feeling" was missing or not working properly. The study raised the interesting possiblity that very successful, or lucky, people, are especially well-attuned to a form of subconscious decision-making.
For the past two years, Dr Richard Wiseman of the psychology department at the University of Hertfordshire has been undertaking similar research into luck and intuition. "Some people do seem to be exceptionally lucky, others seem extremely unlucky," he says. "Their luck is not just manifest in health and wealth; more random events also seem to go in their favour."
As Wiseman studied his sample of self-appointed winners and losers a few factors emerged. One was that lucky people are optimistic. "One man had fallen down the stairs and broken a leg," he says. "His response was, 'Lucky I didn't break my neck.'" The unlucky were pessimistic in comparison, leading him to conclude that luck is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who believe that good things won't happen find that, sure enough, bad things happen instead.
Wiseman also observed a difference in the way they remembered events. The lucky remembered good times, while the unlucky people tended to focus on personal failures. He has even come across people who have such a reputation for being "jinxed" that their friends won't catch the same aeroplane as them. "Behaviour is mediated by those around you. If people expect you to knock a wine glass over, you will."
What, then, is good luck? The lucky often put their good fortune down to intuition, which, Dr Wiseman says, is not magical but based on learning and expertise. "While decisions may not seem rational and we don't know why they feel good or bad, they are often based on life's experience."
Old wives' lore seems to be borne out by the academics, who propose a version of "what goes around, comes around". "If you put out that you are competent, then people will treat you as competent," says psychologist Susan Quilliam, who, having studied the body language of children, believes that this reciprocal process starts as early as six months old. "Some people create an underlying attraction that brings good things to them."
Belief in luck can also be a fatalistic coping mechanism. After God, adds Quilliam, the next best option is to believe in luck. Disbelief in both leads to a faith vacuum, which some have filled with the New-Age notion that people who experience bad luck - illness, financial ruin, even criminal violence - are somehow the architects of their own misfortune. Quilliam does not hold with this pop karma approach. "There's a danger in saying that we have complete control of our lives," she says. "We have an effect on our world, but so, remember, do other people."
What of the people who make their living from 'luck'? Dr David Nias, a clinical psychologist at St Bartholemew's in London, has studied professional gamblers and says that they tend to be eternal optimists. "They always feel their luck will change and it is this optimistic attitude that takes them through," he says. This is often complemented by "exceptional intelligence". Those who claimed "bad luck" were less intelligent and relied on random bets on, say, a horse whose name they liked. As for those who believe that luck has some psychic dimension: "Evidence from hundreds of trials shows that intuition of a paranormal sort counts for nothing. The only kind of intuition that has any worth has a wealth of data behind it."
In the business community, they take luck and intuition seriously. "I often hear senior businessmen say of someone, 'he's got good intuition'," says Tony Renton of the Institute of Directors. A lot rests, he says, on the ability to make risky decisions, for those that succeed earn the decisive executive the tag "lucky".
Mark Hastings, policy advisor for the Institute of Management, says that intuition is "vital for driving a business. But intuitive ideas have to be tested with hard graft, knowledge and understanding. The best gut decisions are made by people who are highly experienced. We have a saying: the older you are, the more gut you have."
Alas, the Iowa College of Medicine's research suggests that bad luck may be biological. Perhaps we are stuck with the "loser's lobe", and the unpleasant possibility that potential employers might demand a brain scan before they offer you a job.
LUCK AND INTUITION
Readers who are interested in contributing to Dr Wiseman's research should fill in this questionnaire and return it to Dr Wiseman, Psychology Department, University of Hertfordshire, College Lane, Hatfield Lane, Hatfield, Herts, AL10 9AB. They will receive the results of the survey by post.
ARE YOU A LUCKY OR UNLUCKY PERSON?
Rate the descriptions below on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 equals "doesn't describe me at all" and 7 equals "describes me very well".
Lucky people are people for whom seemingly chance events tend to work favourably (eg, they always seem to find a parking space and dice always roll their way).
How well does this describe you? _
Unlucky people are the opposite: seemingly random events tend to work out against them (eg, they never seem to win anything on games of chance).
How well does this describe you? _
YOU AND YOUR INTUITION
Intuitive decisions are defined as decisions which happen when people go with what they feel to be right rather than what they think is right (ie, they act on their hunches or gut feelings).
How often do you use your intuition when making decisions?
Not at all 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 All of the time
Do you tend to use your intuition in important or unimportant decisions?
Very unimportant 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Very important
Please tick the areas of your life in which you tend to make intuitive decisions.
Gambling Financial matters
Career decisions Business
Personal relationships Sports
Other (please specify)
Please tick which of the following techniques you use to help you make intuitive decisions:
Clearing your mind of other thoughts
Looking for possible solutions in your dreams
Listening to your "inner self"
Forgetting the problem and hoping a solution will occur unexpectedly
Exposing yourself to new situations and experiences
Going to a quiet place
Other (please specify)
A CHANCE TO USE YOUR INTUITION
Let's suppose that you were faced with a pack of shuffled playing cards that had all of the court cards removed (ie, only left with cards from one to 10). You turn over the top card and discover that it is a three. Now you have to bet pounds 10 on whether the next card is higher, lower or the same. Intuitively, which would you bet?
Higher Lower SameReuse content