The debate as to what portion luck and what portion skill contribute to success expanded recently with a new book, The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math Are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling, written by Adam Kucharski. An excerpt from the book appeared in the April issue of Discover magazine.
While I have zero interest in gambling, as a yet-to-break-through artist I am deeply engaged in the luck vs. skill debate. Am I an inept scribbler tilting at windmills with my pencil or am I a writer not without talent still waiting for the lucky moment when my script will land on the right desk at the right time? Then there are the related questions: How much talent does one possess and how much does that contribute to skill? I am also interested in the debate as it might contribute to a philosophy of life, as I suspect the debate informs the bigger question: How should one live?
Kucharski describes recent trials involving a poker room on Staten Island. The case centered on the question, Is poker a game of chance? That question led to the larger question of how we define a game of chance. Is roulette? How about bridge? Chess? The answers are not as simple as we might think.
I like to expand the question: To what degree are the outcomes of any life a matter of skill or chance? A few days ago the Times carried a story about a woman who died in January after she and her husband overdosed shooting up in their baby’s room at a Cincinnati hospital. Born to two junkies, how did that baby do in the parent lottery? How will this horrible event now influence her life? Will she be sleeping in some urban doorway in 20 years?
When it comes to outcomes of decisions, we often take a one-sided view of chance. If our choice fares well, we put it down to skill; if it fails, we write it off to bad luck. Psychologists call this “self-serving attribution bias.” I saw it frequently in the business world. Executives would readily attribute success to their own amazing skill and failure to external causes, including, you guessed it, bad luck. I was not immune to this bias. Artists cannot be left off the hook here either; they are as susceptible to this bias as business leaders.
Kucharski describes a study done a decade ago on how music becomes popular. That is, what makes a hit song – skill or luck? Fourteen thousand participants were asked to listen to, rate and download dozens of tracks. The researchers secretly split participants into nine groups. Participants in eight of them could see which tracks were popular among their fellow group members. The researchers were thus inserting a social factor. The ninth group served as the control group; its members had no idea what songs were being downloaded by anyone else.
The researchers found that the most popular songs in the control group – a ranking that had to depend solely on the merits of the songs themselves and the private tastes of the listeners – weren’t necessarily popular in the eight socially influenced groups. In fact, the song ranking in those eight groups varied widely. Although the “best” songs as identified by the control group usually racked up some downloads in the other eight groups, popularity wasn’t guaranteed.
Instead, for the eight “social” groups fame developed in two stages. Individual preferences influenced what songs were picked in the early going. But then the popularity of those first downloaded songs became amplified by social behavior; participants looked at the rankings and were drawn to imitating their peers. This points to popularity being a product of randomness amplified by social behavior. There is a feedback loop that is reminiscent of patterns found in the field of chaos theory, where initial conditions (butterfly’s wings flapping in China; early song selections) can sometimes have an outsize influence on eventual outcomes (hurricane in Gulf of Mexico; hit songs).
I can see how this dynamic might operate in the theatre world. First of all, we have the major social amplifiers: the Internet and its spawn social media and, in recent decades, the emergence of an oligarchy of MFA playwriting programs (Brown, Iowa, Juilliard, NYU, Texas, Yale). Despite their influence, the greatest amplifier for a playwright’s career in the U.S. continues to be a production in New York combined with a positive review in the Times. Danai Gurira, a talented young playwright and actress, has authored two new plays that recently opened in New York – Familiar off-Broadway and Eclipsed on Broadway. Both plays received glowing reviews in the New York Times. Now the odds are that the next play Ms. Gurira writes will be quite good, but even if it is a dog with fleas and a gas problem, because of the amplifying social power of those productions and Times raves (one result being the plays’ mention in this blog), for the rest of her life any play Ms. Gurira writes will receive serious consideration by numerous theatres and its odds of being produced will have soared. Furthermore, her likelihood to win prizes, residencies, commissions, grants and fellowships has been goosed. Her writing career just reached its tipping point, a wonderful thing to behold.
Our beliefs about luck and skill also translate to the political sphere. A 2011 Pew Global Attitudes survey asked residents of various countries if success in life is determined by forces outside our control. Seventy-two percent of Germans answered yes compared to only 36% of Americans. Those are two radically different views of the human condition. If I believe that the adult sleeping under cardboard in the dark storefront made her own bed, so to speak, I am less likely to support politicians who favor a strong social safety net.
As for that court case against the Staten Island poker room owner that Adam Kucharski cited, both prosecution and defense brought in Ph.D economists as expert witnesses on chance vs. skill. The defendant was convicted and the conviction overturned on appeal. The appellate judge ruled that poker was predominantly governed by skill rather than chance and did not count as gambling under federal law. The case was then tried in New York state court, which has a stricter definition of gambling – “depends in a material way upon an element of chance.” There he was found guilty. Bad luck in court for that defendant. Or, did he just need an attorney with more skill?
Luck or skill? Skill or luck. It’s rarely just one or the other. And the answer is likely to be more complex than we think.
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