Photo: Stocksy
Photo: Stocksy


The test that proves people think their success has nothing to do with luck

Almost everyone assumes that their success stems from their talents and skills, but the truth is often more arbitrary, says Viv Groskop

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By Viv Groskop on

Is success all about luck? Or does it come when we deserve it? It all depends who we’re talking about. If we’re talking about someone we don’t like – Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson, the robots in human form we call “The Kardashians” – then, yes, of course, their success is entirely dependent on luck because such persons have no skill, talent or merit. Supposedly. On the other hand, if we are talking about ourselves or about people who we do like, then, no, of course not! Our success has nothing to do with luck. And everything to do with how naturally brilliant and amazing and hard-working we are. Right?

Hmm. So as we can see, success and luck are subjective things and we attribute them selectively. Until science intervenes. Well, sort of science. Take this experiment with cookies at the University of California, which is extremely interesting. Although I would just like to say at this point that I have been doing unpaid experiments with cookies for years, completely unacknowledged and unrecognised by the scientific community. It’s OK, I am not bitter about it. The work of many Nobel prize winners went ignored for many years.

Anyway. They put together groups of three people to discuss complex issues and appointed a leader at random. After 30 minutes they brought in cookies. This is where I have been going wrong in my experiments, by the way. I usually start with the cookies. I don’t wait 30 minutes. I just eat them and I do it on my own. I’m not sure it’s really necessary to wait but I guess the University of California knows best and that’s why they’re a university and I’m just a person with a lot of cookie wrappers in their bin.

A random choice had created status, and within minutes that stroke of luck had created entitlement

Still. In came the refreshments tray at the half-hour mark. There were four cookies. For three people. In every single experiment (“and without discussion or objection”), the extra cookie went to the “leader” of the group: “A random choice had created status, and within minutes that stroke of luck had created entitlement.” Welcome to the human race, people. We are idiots; hierarchy-obsessed fools who are giving away all our cookies to people who don’t even deserve them.

I love this experiment. And not just because I have found a person who seems to have made a prestigious academic career out of something that I was doing on my own time and for nothing. Because it proves how arbitrary life is. Presumably in some of the cases, some of the leaders deserved to occupy their role. (Whether they should have also had an extra cookie for this, though, is debatable.) In other cases, they lucked out and ended up in charge when they had done nothing to merit this.

As children we rail against the randomness of rewards and drive ourselves crazy screaming “It’s not fair” when our siblings get the things we wanted for no reason other than they’re a bit older or a bit younger than us. Although infuriating, this primes us for a life where someone else is always going to have something you should have had and they won’t even deserve it. And no one will even point out how unfair it is, just as no one questioned whether the arbitrarily appointed leader should have had the extra cookie. 

What to do, then? Acceptance and awareness, people. Accept that this is how things are and be aware when you’re the lucky one. Maybe divide the cookie into three when you’re queen. Or do what I do and eat all the cookies in advance yourself. “Sorry, there weren’t any cookies. It’s really unfair, isn’t it?”


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