Catherine H. Tinsley
University professor

Catherine H. Tinsley

Associate professor at Georgetown University's business school and the executive director of the GU Women's Leadership Initiative.

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Bias against luck

Q: How much does achieving success rely on luck vs. skill? This week a Western Maryland lumberjack named Darvin Moon won $5 million in the World Series of Poker. He insists he is no more skilled at cards than any recreational player. What do you think?

How much of success is chance-dependent? What most social science research shows is that one's own success is more chance-dependent than we think. Obviously any outcome we attain is a function of both our effort (our purposeful behavior to get this outcome) and a random error component (luck).

For example, our career level is a function of all our hard work to get to this level (studying in school, preparing for the interview, accomplishing past work that has been given to us) and random error (good luck -- such as having a job open that you might want to take, getting assignments that fit your skill level, and bad luck -- a downturn in the market that may have limited the progress anyone in your firm has made over the last year).

Although we know our successes (outcomes) are a function of both our effort and some luck -- it turns out that we tend to discount the role of good luck in our own outcomes.

In the late 1980s, social psychologists came up with the notion of "outcome bias," which basically says that we tend to anchor on outcomes (because they are easy to observe) and that we discount the process (the behaviors, decision-making, etc.) of getting to these outcomes.

In particular, we tend to discount the role of good luck or good fortune in our own outcomes. Rather, for ego protection reasons (so we can feel good about ourselves) we like to attribute any good outcomes we attain to our own effort (cleverness, perseverance, skill, training, etc.). This also gives us the illusion of control -- in general, people do not like to believe in luck -- random error -- because it is by very definition random, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. If we think our success is because of our own effort, then we feel more comfortable. After all, if our success is within our control, then we can "count on it" (provided we put in the effort).

All this said, I do subscribe to Pascale's general notion that "fortune favors the prepared mind." In other words, we can set ourselves up to capitalize on good fortune, when it comes our way. To be sure -- success comes in part because of skill (and effort). Nonetheless, luck (fortune, chance) also is a component of success -- and is a larger component than we tend to acknowledge.

By Catherine H. Tinsley  |  November 12, 2009; 8:09 AM ET  | Category:  Skill versus Luck Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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