Football (i.e. soccer) is one of the most debated subjects by men and women alike. On dinner tables, at the pub, or on social media, it is only surmounted by the subject of politics. During one of the many heated debates, on the reasons why one team closely edged another team, the word “luck” came up frequently.
“To win you must have a bit of luck”, one person exclaims.
The rest of the group nodded in agreement.
During another heated debate, this time concerning politics:
“That person was in the right place and at the right time” one person exclaims.
“Yes. He was lucky that way”, another individual argues.
Many a time “luck” is perceived as a major contributing factor towards a successful endeavour. The “concept” of “luck” is sometimes given a quasi-mythical status. It is perceived as a supernatural, almost magical, force which randomly, and aimlessly, impacts whatever individual or endeavour it comes in contact with, and subsequently conditions that individual or endeavour’s outcome.
I am also guilty of wearing a “lucky” wrist band for many of my competitive basketball games when I was younger. It somehow gave me a greater sense of security. I am also guilty of owning a “lucky” pen, which I ceremoniously carried with me to all my O-Level (Ordinary Level) examinations. I must admit that I was relatively successful both at my basketball, and even at my academic endeavours.
At this point it is very tempting to ridicule the concept of “luck” and to describe it as complete and utter nonsense: bordering on irrational and foolish. To a certain degree, I do look at my younger self and towards the superstitions which I believed in as “silly”. Today I must admit (and disclose) that I do not believe in luck, and define it as a superstitious belief. However, I would not want to undermine any individual’s personal beliefs. Furthermore, just like many other beliefs, the concept of luck could also be a valuable and useful one to those who choose to embrace it.
To examine further the notion of “luck”, I would like to start by asking the question: “which factors, other than luck, could impact the outcomes of the situations debated at the beginning of this article? Some factors could be: good preparation, hard-work, determination, significant effort, professional coaching, expert guidance, scientific principles, disciplined attitude, thorough research, perseverance, amongst many others. In the case of the footballing debate, the absence of the factors which were just mentioned could also impact the result of a game. This could also be said for the case of the politician. A popular saying comes to mind here: “fail to prepare, then prepare to fail”.
Yet, when considering the numerous possible reasons and factors that could influence an outcome of an event, why do people choose to prioritize luck over all the other factors which they have more control on?
One explanation could be related to the famous “self-fulfilling prophecy”. The term “self-fulfilling prophecy” refers to a false (untrue) definition of a situation which provokes (or evokes) a new behaviour. In turn, this behaviour makes the originally false definition (or conception) occur and thus come true. In other words, if you think you are going to be lucky, then you can behave in ways which make you feel lucky. As a result, you may experience increased confidence, motivation, and self-belief, which in turn could help you achieve your goal. Consequently, you will be reinforcing the notion that you are lucky. Research seems to back this hypothesis as it suggests that people who think of themselves as lucky could be more prone to succeed; because they are more willing to “cash in” on opportunities. I.e., their belief impacts their behaviour, making them bolder, more daring and audacious. As a consequence, such behaviours may put them in a better position to achieve their goal. Also, those who believe they are inherently lucky tend to be more optimistic, and become more positive and hopeful about the likelihood of future success.
Is “luck” in any way related to academic success?
Upon reading the previous paragraph one might start to perceive luck as some sort of tonic for individual success. However, research on student motivation, achievement, and student’s perceptions about their reasons for being successful in school seems to state otherwise.
Students that attribute their success or failures to an external force which they can hardly control tend to get discouraged easily upon encountering their first challenges or failures. Such a notion has been research extensively under the definition of “Attribution Theory”.
In fact, another way which the notion of luck could be understood is “Attribution Theory”. Attribution theory is concerned with how and why people explain events as they do. It assumes that individuals are motivated by a goal of understanding and mastering the environment and themselves (Pintrich & Schunk, 1996).
American Social Psychologist Bernard Weiner (1972) specifically focused his attribution theory research on student achievement. He stated that students (or learners) tend to spontaneously search to understand the causes of their successes and/or failures. Their search for attributional factors is very important according to Weiner, as their understanding of why they succeeded or failed will impact markedly on their psychological wellbeing, on their motivation, on their task persistence, on their engagement with the curriculum, and on their decision on whether to try again or give up altogether (Ellis Ormrod, 2005).
Weiner (1972) identified ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck as the principal factors affecting attributions for student achievement. Weiner (1972) proposes that ability (intelligence) is usually seen as a factor which cannot be changed (as it is an innate characteristic) and is also stable (i.e. it does not change over time). Effort on the other hand is usually within the student’s control, and can change from one activity to the other, depending on student motivation. Task difficulty on the other hand is not in the student’s control, as exam material and curriculums are set by academic gatekeepers. However, task difficulty is generally stable and predictable, as curriculum is made public much before teaching starts and before any testing of knowledge occurs. Luck is the most unstable factor of them all. Luck is also an external factor which is never, ever ever, under the student’s control. In fact, if a student wears a pair of lucky socks for a test which have not been washed for months, it will most probably have absolutely no impact on performance during the test for which he/she has never studied for.
Students who have the impression that nothing they do will alter the results of the learning process, and who attribute success to good luck and failure to bad luck, will make little effort to contribute to their own learning (Morse & Jutras, 2008). This could lead students to be disengaged from their learning, and can impact negatively motivation and self-efficacy (i.e. confidence in one’s own ability to achieve intended results). Educators, and I presume even parents, do not want students to have fatalistic (or defeatist) attributions for their achievements. Rather, they want persevering students who are critical not only about what they are learning, but also about how they are learning. Students who do not attribute their success or failures to luck but who understand that they have a part to play in their learning, and in how successful they can be, tend to be more effective at learning.
Over time, students are reported to develop predictable patterns of attributions and expectations for their future performance on academic tasks (Gaier, 2015). Some students remain optimistic and confident about their chances to succeed. Others become increasingly weary of their possibilities to success and may also present with a sense of helplessness. These predictable attributional patterns are called explanatory styles.
Researchers have identified two opposing explanatory styles: Mastery Orientation and Helpless Orientation. A Mastery Orientation refers to a child’s desire to become competent on a task. Children with high mastery orientation stand out. Parents and teachers don’t have to persuade or force these children to learn. Instead, these students want to practice lessons in school just for the sake of becoming more highly skilled. Task persistence and self-evaluations represent two components of motivation often used to measure motivation orientation.
Compared with children with mastery orientations, children with helpless orientations tend to produce more negative self-evaluations, and are less likely to persist on a task after failure. Furthermore, helpless children are more likely to engage in a different task that would help to hide their poor ability (or perceived ability). Such behaviour are usually aimed towards protecting themselves from a negative evaluation. Thus, they could prefer to engage in activities which are not academic related (which could also include clowning in class, or chatting to a friend) rather than persist at a task at which they predict that they are going to fail in.
What does all this mean?
Luck is a complex phenomenon. It is an attributional factor which could leave children and adults feeling helpless. Winning a football game and attributing it to luck does not reward (emotionally) an individual as much as when he/she attributes it to skill. However, it is argued that losing a football game and attributing it to a lack of skill will not encourage the footballer to practice harder or change his/her training style and comeback another time to try again.
This “challenge” has led theorists to believe that students respond more favourably to failure situations when they attribute their failures to unstable, and controllable variables such as effort (Ellis Ormrod, 2005). Theorists also propose that attributing both success and failures to luck leads to students which are not involved and participant in their learning. These also tend to develop a helpless explanatory style. Students who attribute failures to their effort are more prone to persevere at a task and commit more time and effort to it (if they value the outcome of their endeavour i.e.). However, those who focus solely on effort could also come to a point where they are disheartened, especially in a situation where a great deal of effort has led to poor outcomes. Thus, other controllable attributions such as learning strategies could yield higher self-efficacy and higher motivation.
In conclusion, believing in luck could lead students to contribute poorly to their own learning. Believing solely in luck could lead students to stop trying altogether, as they could perceive success as being completely out of their control. Believing in luck is probably what leads people to stop spending money on the weekly raffle (or Super 5 lottery). “For if it is only up to chance and probability” they argue, their confidence in obtaining a positive outcome on a national lottery turns out to be relatively low. However, the ones who have even the slightest hope, and are willing to gamble and buy a ticket, are the only ones who could win. This analogy is not intended to suggest that luck should be placed at the centre of an individual’s attribution for success or failures. On the contrary, research indicates that success is more likely to occur when it is attributed to controllable variables such as effort, studying strategies, learning styles, practice time etc. However, I suspect that having a positive definition (or positive expectation) of a situation can impact positively self- beliefs, and in turn could make people bolder, more daring, and audacious. Consequently, such behaviours may put them in a better position to achieve a goal.
Ellis Ormrod, J. (2005). Human Learning. Ohio: Merrill.
Gaier, S. E. (2015). Understanding Why Students Do What They Do: Using Attribution Theory to Help Students Succeed Academically. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 31(2), 6-19.
Morse, D., & Jutras, F. (2008). Implementing concept-based learning in a large undergraduate classroom. Cell Biology Eduation, 243-253.
Pintrich, P. R., & Schunk, D. H. (1996). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications. Columbus, OH: PearsonMerrill Prentice Hall.
Weiner, B. (1972). Attribution theory, achievement motivation, and the educational process. Review of educational research, 42(2), 203-215.