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What luck in war reveals about the role of chance in life | Psyche

British soldiers in southern Iraq in 2006. Photo by Gary Calton/Panos

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What luck in war reveals about the role of chance in life

British soldiers in southern Iraq in 2006. Photo by Gary Calton/Panos

by Andy Owen + BIO

There was a saying I heard in Iraq: ‘Big sky, small mortar.’ It provided reassurance that the probability of being hit by one of the many rockets fired at our base was low. Perhaps because of this, the first time I saw a rocket flying overhead I was struck by how small the black en dash looked against the bright Mesopotamian sky. I took cover behind a concrete blast wall, and it passed harmlessly overhead. Other soldiers not far away from where I was based weren’t so lucky. Some were killed by rockets falling out of the night sky while they slept. The difference between us was luck.

In his novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), Erich Maria Remarque claimed: ‘Every soldier owes the fact that he is still alive to a thousand lucky chances and nothing else. And every soldier believes in and trusts to chance.’ Despite the level of mastery of drills and skills, there was a recognition by many I served with that Remarque was right. In war, human experience is taken to extremes. Survival is determined by multiple variables outside your control. Once you have been in a situation where your survival appears to be down to random luck, you are inevitably changed. The question that this raised for me was how much of my civilian life was down to my choices, and how much was like my experience of war zones. Is it only in such extreme situations that luck takes over, or is it there but less frequently noticed in all our lives?

George Orwell described sport as ‘war minus the shooting’. Cricket has more variables that can influence the result than most sports. It starts with the toss of a coin. The nature of the pitch and the weather can make it better to bowl at some stages than others. The opposition can get you out 10 different ways. The former England batsman David Gower agrees that luck was a big factor in who won key matches he played in. He quoted the former Australian captain Richie Benaud: ‘Captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill. But don’t try it without that 10 per cent.’ Gower recalls key moments where a small bit of luck had a big impact on how a series went. At the beginning of one series, he hit a shot, early in a one-day innings, that landed just out of reach of a fielder on the boundary. A gust of wind from one direction could have held up the ball slightly so the fielder could have taken the catch; instead, Gower went on to make a significant score and England won the series. Another England cricketing legend, Ian Bell, agrees, highlighting the role of injuries. Bell told me of the mental pressure of knowing that, even if you do everything right as a batsman, you may still get out.

Is the winner the best at tossing coins, or simply the luckiest?

But it is not just in war and sport that luck plays such a great part. In our interconnected global economy, every business operates in a high-variable environment. This is not new. Timothy Dexter, perhaps the luckiest businessperson to have lived, married a rich widow sometime at the end of the 1760s or early 1770s. He used her money to buy large amounts of depreciated Continental currency, from which he made a significant profit at the end of the American Revolutionary War. He used this to start exporting. Rivals advised him to send bed warmers to the tropics. His ship’s captain sold them as ladles to the molasses industry and made a profit. He then shipped coal to Newcastle, England (where there were multiple coal mines), which arrived during a miners’ strike, enabling his cargo to be sold at a premium. Dexter decorated his mansion with statues of famous men, including George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and himself (his was inscribed: ‘I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western World’).

Dexter was an eccentric, whose decisions were aided by events outside his control, but was his success dissimilar to that of a lauded CEO running a company when the wider economy is booming? The bonds trader and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb used a simulation of hundreds of traders tossing a coin, trying to land heads, to demonstrate survivor bias. Each round, those landing tails are removed until there is just one left. Is that winner the best at tossing coins, or simply the luckiest? There is another common error called fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency of humans to overestimate the role of individuals in success and to underplay the role of circumstances. CEOs in a booming economy are seen as better leaders than those in bust cycles.

Yet in 2020 the entrepreneur Elon Musk Tweeted: ‘Working 16 hours a day, 7 day’s a week, 52 week’s in year and people still calling me lucky.’ For Musk, success is down to hard work, not luck. If you work hard enough, luck stops being a factor. But there are no guarantees. As the Australian politician Andrew Leigh noted: ‘While there are plenty of people who’ve gotten to the top by dint of hard work, many of those who’ve worked their guts out don’t succeed. Effort may be a necessary condition for success, but it isn’t a sufficient one.’

Does it matter if we don’t generally recognise the role of luck in success? The economist Robert H Frank suggests that it may be disadvantageous to think too hard about luck’s role. Practice means trying and failing before mastering skills. It’s difficult to summon up effort to do that. If you’re focused on luck, you may make excuses to avoid that effort, instead hoping you’ll get lucky when the time comes. If denying luck’s importance makes it easier to tackle difficult tasks, it may be adaptive. Some sports stars use the power of superstitions to manage the pressure that the cricketer Bell mentions. Their rituals give them a belief that fate will favour them. When Gower made a good score wearing a new piece of kit, it became lucky for him. He’d use it until he made a bad score, when he would discard it, scapegoating it for his bad luck. I witnessed similar superstitions in the army.

However, whether we appreciate the role of luck in our lives or not can have a profound impact on how we see and treat others. The philosopher Thomas Nagel claims that things for which we are morally judged are determined, in more ways than we think, by what’s beyond our control. What we are and do, what we become or have done, all these things are dependent on what he called ‘moral luck’.

Nagel identifies four ways in which moral judgment is subject to luck. The first is the kind of person you are: intelligent, disciplined, tall (a disproportionate number of CEOs are above average height). The second is your circumstances, the situations you face. The third is luck in how one is determined by antecedent circumstances. The fourth is luck in the way one’s actions turn out. Nagel takes a drunk driver who is caught and charged with drunk driving. He is seen morally differently to the drunk driver in a parallel world who has a child step out in front of his car, leaving no time for even a sober driver to swerve. Our moral judgment is more severe towards the latter. Nagel asked: ‘How is it possible to be more or less culpable depending on whether a child gets into the path of one’s car … ?’

According to Nagel, across these elements of moral luck, the idea of us having genuine agency, and therefore being able to be legitimately morally judged, seems to shrink. Yet, we don’t view ourselves simply as results of external circumstances and genetic fate. We have an idea of the boundary between what’s us and what’s not us, what we do and what happens to us, who we are and what fate throws in our path. This remains true even when we accept Nagel’s arguments that we are not ultimately responsible for our own existence, or nature, or the circumstances that give our acts the consequences they have. As there’s a close connection between our feelings about ourselves and our feelings about others, this allows us to feel justified in judging others, even when we accept how little responsibility they have.

Conservatives don’t accept that successful individuals have not earned their spoils

The psychologists Dena M Gromet, Kimberly A Hartson and David K Sherman discovered that whether you accept Nagel’s ideas is correlated with your political beliefs. They demonstrated that conservatives believe that luck plays much less of a role in success than liberals do. Conservatives believe that successful people deserve their success, and that to suggest they have been lucky challenges this ‘deservingness’.

Their study showed that external attributions for success that don’t emphasise chance, such as help from a network, don’t produce the same results. Conservatives are more amenable to luck when random chance is de-emphasised, as it doesn’t contradict people being deserving of outcomes. Like Musk, conservatives don’t accept that successful individuals have not earned their spoils, and assume that those who are less successful haven’t worked as hard. Individuals with socially conservative attitudes are more likely to believe in some form of the Protestant work ethic, and in a just world, than liberals do.

The psychologist Paul Piff suggests that, when we believe that our luck is deserved, it changes how we treat others. He randomly assigned subjects in a laboratory as ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ in a rigged game of Monopoly. The lucky players began behaving as though they were superior to their opponents. When asked why they won, they attributed it to their ability rather than (their rigged) luck.

Self-help literature has traditionally re-enforced such biases. In his classic of the genre Think and Grow Rich (1937), Napoleon Hill argued that those who suffer poverty ‘are the creators of their own “misfortune”’. Believe you will be successful, and you will be. The former US president Donald Trump is influenced by his father’s obsession with the self-help author Norman Vincent Peale. Peale proclaimed that you need only self-confidence to prosper. Trump claims to be a self-made man, conveniently ignoring the part played by his luck in being born into great wealth in one of the world’s richest countries. These sorts of beliefs impact human relations, policies and our sense of self-worth.

The West is in the grip of a conflated culture war, in which ‘privilege’ has become a burdened word. This idea of privilege combines Nagel’s first two types of luck: being born who you are, and the circumstances you face. Most will agree we are all born with different characteristics and are born into different circumstances – some into royalty, some into poverty. However, disagreements centre around what makes one lucky or not.

No matter our political persuasion, we recognise our bad luck more than other’s bad luck, other’s good luck more than we do our own. I started my career as a soldier with the illusion that I was in control of my fate; after seeing the misfortune of those who fell victim to events outside their control, I finished my career with the recognition of how lucky I had been, and how much chance affects outcomes. Perhaps this is not such a bad way to view life: you should see yourself as in control of your future successes, but lucky to have achieved your past successes and, at the end of your life, accept that you got better than you deserved.

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7 September 2022