On the other hand, feeling unlucky could lead to a vicious cycle likely to generate unlucky outcomes. Psychologist John Maltby of the University of Leicester hypothesized that beliefs in being unlucky are associated with lower executive functioning—the ability to plan, organize, and attend to tasks or goals. In a 2013 study, he and colleagues found a link between a belief in being unlucky and lower executive function skills like switching between tasks and creative thinking. Then in 2015, he and other colleagues found more electrical activity related to lower executive function in the brains of 10 students who believed themselves very unlucky than in the brains of 10 students who believed themselves very lucky. “People who believe in bad luck didn’t necessarily engage in some of the processes that are needed to bring about positive outcomes,” Maltby says.
However, certain kinds of unfortunate events—even very serious ones—seem to result in the mirror-opposite of this line of thinking. Teigen and his colleagues read interviews with 85 Norwegian tourists who took family vacations in Southeast Asia in the winter of 2004. When the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit, their and their children’s lives were at risk, their Christmas holidays ruined. Unlucky, right? Well, not from their perspective. Two years later, 95 percent of them said they had been lucky to survive, not unlucky to have picked that moment to travel there. (The remaining 5 percent said they had been a combination of lucky and unlucky.)
At least in the simulation, the parkers quickly sorted themselves into lucky and unlucky groups, without any reference to personality or gender, Kirman says. That means that a good or bad luck cycle could happen to anybody without their conscious knowledge. It also means that, to the extent that life is a zero-sum game like parking, our bad luck cycle could be facilitating someone else’s good luck cycle—and that’s maddening. “The unlucky guys learn to choose the spots far back and leave the spots for other spots for the guys who are ‘lucky,’ ” Kirman says.
Of course, believing in your own good luck isn’t always a good thing. In gambling, for example, lucky streaks are never what they seem. Take the case of online sports betting. Juemin Xu, a graduate student at University College London, and her advisor, experimental psychologist Nigel Harvey, analyzed a 2010 database of 565,915 sports bets made by 776 online gamblers. In all those bets, they found something apparently at odds with laws of probability: Bettors were more likely to win after winning.