Believing in their own good fortune can help people only in situations where they can affect the outcome. It can’t, say, help people watching a horse race they have bet on.
“The idea that wearing a red shirt, saying some sort of incantation or prayer or carrying a lucky charm will bring good luck is very appealing because it gives people the illusion that they have some degree of control over future events in their lives,” says Peter Thall, a biostatistician at the University of Texas. “The painful truth is that we have little or no control over the most important events in our lives.”
Mathematicians have demonstrated the role that randomness plays in life—”there are no long-term successful craps players,” says Harvey Mudd College mathematician Arthur Benjamin.
But don’t tell that to the people who believe they can shape their own luck. They’re well represented in games of chance, such as lotteries and casinos, and will be out in force at Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, in which a favorite is named, what else, Lookin At Lucky.
Investors also are prone to superstitions. For example, during an eclipse, which many cultures view as a bad omen, major U.S. stock-market indexes typically fall, according to research conducted by Gabriele Lepori, assistant professor of finance at Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. This effect persists even after controlling for economic news and long-term trends. And the indexes usually bounce back soon afterward.