Why Americans Ignore the Role of Luck in Everything

Cornell economist Robert Frank Photo: Cornell University

Seven years ago, Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell, went on Fox Business to speak with host Stuart Varney about a New York Times column Frank had written. In it, Frank had argued that, “Contrary to what many parents tell their children, talent and hard work are neither necessary nor sufficient for economic success.” The missing ingredient, he explained in an argument he would eventually expand upon in his new book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, is luck.

After introducing Frank, Varney jumped right down the scholar’s throat, “Do you know how insulting that was, when I read that?” Varney asked him. “I came to America with nothing 35 years ago. I’ve made something of myself, I think through hard work, talent, and risk-taking, and you’re going to write in the New York Times that this is luck.”

The segment didn’t really get much better from there:  

Monday, at a book event at Ideas42, a behavioral-economics-focused think tank, Frank led off with this anecdote, and it’s understandable why: Varney’s reaction captures — albeit in a somewhat hysterical, made-for-cable-news way — the reaction many people have to the idea that luck, rather than hard work or merit, plays a big role in who rises to the top, who slides to or stays at the bottom, and who gets stalled in the middle. (As Frank couldn’t resist pointing out, Varney’s idea of “coming to America with nothing” left out the fact that, at the time he did, he had a degree from the London School of Economics — his was not the story of a battered émigré riding in steerage on a creaky transatlantic steamship.)

Varney, like many people who get upset by Frank’s argument, ignored a full half of it: Frank does think hard work, and merit more broadly, play important roles in determining success. Most successful people worked very hard to get there, and indeed are quite talented. But merit and hard work aren’t enough — because there are so many people who are smart and hardworking, but only so many “slots” for the best jobs, for most successful artistic endeavors, and so on, luck invariably plays an important role.

Frank, who was turned onto the topic of luck when he survived a severe medical scare simply because of, well, very good luck, thinks that this is a very important blind spot that can explain a great deal about how America is organized — specifically, the country’s somewhat lackadaisical approach to tackling inequality and, relatedly, to offering residents the sorts of government-sponsored social supports so common in the rest of the wealthy world. Because people have such an unbalanced view of the luck-versus-skill equation, they fail to understand that there is good reason to have programs that can help redress some of the imbalances that arise in such a luck-oriented world.

Here are three things that jumped out at me during Frank’s talk and the Q&A session that followed.

1. Hindsight bias is a powerful driver of luck blindness.

Humans don’t, as a general rule, do well with ambiguity. We like to tell clear, coherent stories about the world we see in front of us, and success is no exception. Hindsight bias, which is — and I’m just going to go with the Wikipedia definition here, because it’s good — “the inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it,” can partly explain how we come up with stories that cause us to discount the role of luck. Frank provided two examples of how hindsight bias warps our understanding of success in this manner: the Mona Lisa and Bryan Cranston.

The Mona Lisa, he explained, was a mostly unknown painting until it was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian maintenance worker in 1911, at which point it got all sorts of newspaper coverage that introduced the painting to the world. Then, when the thief attempted to sell it, only to have the would-be buyer turn him in so the painting could be returned to the Louvre, it got another round of coverage, further boosting its profile. As for Cranston, he was far from the top choice to play the now-legendary role of Walter White on Breaking Bad. Network executivs wanted John Cusack or Matthew Broderick, and they were not enthusiastic about Cranston, then known mostly for playing the dad on Malcolm in the Middle, who was series creator Vince Gilligan’s pick. But after Cusack and Broderick both turned down the role, Cranston got his shot.

These days, of course, you can tell a pretty compelling story about why the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world, or why Cranston got the role of Walter White — the painting has certain qualities that set it apart, and Cranston is a truly gifted actor. But all of that would have been for naught if a certain sequence of chance events hadn’t taken place. Some other painting would be the most famous one in the world; someone else would have played Walter White. Without luck, you can’t really explain what happened.

2. When it comes to luck, people often freak out when you tell them stuff that’s obviously, incontrovertibly true.

Frank kept circling back to the fact that absolutely nothing he’s saying is at all controversial. That’s why the Varney exchange is so telling: The host got extremely heated and personally offended (or performed offense, at least) simply because Frank pointed out that it takes some luck to be a successful person. Every thinking person understands this intellectually, and yet a lot of people react really aggressively to what is a thoroughly commonsense notion.

Part of the problem is hindsight bias, of course — hard work and merit constitute a tighter, more linear and straightforward story, and therefore one that’s easier to process cognitively. The other problem is that people tend to react very poorly to any ideas that chip away at their sense of who they are. People hear “Luck is a contributing factor,” and think what the speaker is actually saying is “You didn’t earn what you have.” They make a giant leap, simply because acknowledging the role of luck can feel like such a blow to one’s self-concept.

3. Encouraging “active processing” might be one way to help avoid such freaking out, especially among rich people.

One of Frank’s broad goals is to figure out how to get wealthy, fortunate people in particular to understand that good fortune is part of why they are where they are — in his view, that might help spur the sorts of more egalitarian policies many of them have traditionally, and vociferously, opposed.

He pointed out that, in his experience, telling rich people they’re lucky tends to be a surefire way to evoke defensiveness (Fox Business’s Varney is a pretty compelling example). If, on the other hand, you ask them to come up with times when they were lucky, Frank believes it often gets them thinking about their own life and the path they took to get where they are. Everyone who is successful can point to some way in which they were lucky — they will always have some kind of answer, and it might spur them to think about the concept in a new, helpful way.

This immediately brought to my mind the idea of “active processing” and how it fit into a recent experiment I wrote about in which canvassers were able to get residents they spoke with to be more tolerant of transgender people. Part of the goal there was to defeat the disgust and scaremongering that has been aimed at trans people, and the researchers think that by asking the residents to think of a time when they faced discrimination, it encouraged a deeper, more personal sort of reflection — it short-circuited the knee-jerk disgust.

Similarly, Frank’s idea circumvents the defensiveness that occurs when someone interprets a question about luck as implying they didn’t earn what they have. Frank’s goal is to get people to realize that merit and luck contribute to outcomes, and encouraging rich people to engage in active processing may be one way to do so.  

Why Americans Ignore How Luck Affects Everything