Cognitive Psychology

Luck and Autism


“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?” is the oft misquoted line from Dirty Harry to some unlucky punk. Aren’t they all unlucky, those punks, especially those who messed with Dirty Harry?

What about you, dear unfortunate reader, who undoubtedly stumbled upon this Ye Olde Blogge entry quite by accident and got sucked in by the very hooky hook up there in the previous paragraph, do you feel lucky? Of course not. You’re here, reading this! How lucky can you be?

What about your life in general, though. Is your life generally lucky or is it unlucky? Do you believe in luck? Are their people who are lucky and those who are unlucky?

Does fortune favor those who are prepared? Do we make our own luck? Go ahead, leave your thoughts in the comments. You know you want to.

I used to believe that luck was based more on confirmation bias than anything else. If you saw yourself as lucky, then when something lucky happened, you said to yourself, “See? I’m lucky! This fortunate thing happened,” and you ignored all the unlucky things that happened. And vice versa. That is until I came across the work of Richard Wiseman on luck.

As it turns out, #ScienceFact, there are people who are lucky and people who are unlucky, and they have more things in common than just their answers on a stupid survey on luck!

Defining Luck

Luck, according to dictionary.com, is a force that influences the circumstances and events in a person’s life for good or bad; an advantage that is the result of chance; or any combination of chance or circumstance that brings good or bad into a person’s life.

Lucky people have good things happen to them without them even trying. A good friend of mine tried to visit the Westgate shopping mall minutes before the terrorist attack began back in September 2013. He was turned away at the security check because he had a cooking gas canister in his trunk. They didn’t allow that. He got lucky. I had a student who was killed in the attack along with her mother. They were unlucky. Her brother escaped — he ran one way, they ran the other — and was shot in the legs. He was lucky.

My friend at Westgate was a Vietnam War vet. He came through the war relatively unscathed, at least he was never shot or struck down by shrapnel, even though he saw lots of action as a dog handler. He was lucky.

See how that works?

Naturally Lucky and Unlucky

Are people like my friend and my student’s brother naturally lucky and people like my student and her mother, unlucky? Wiseman and other psychologists have tried to suss out whether or not it is true, and their findings, if you don’t know them already — they are quite old, really — might surprise you.

One study he did was to get people to rate themselves on whether they were lucky or not, and then look through a newspaper to count all of the photos. In the middle of the newspaper in great big letters and bold type was the message, See the experimenter for 100 pounds! Those who rated themselves lucky were far more likely to ask for their money than those who rated themselves unlucky.

Another study was conducted using thousands of respondents. People were asked to complete a questionnaire on how lucky they perceived themselves to be and included some demographic data like their month of birth. Those born in the summer months, March to August, perceived themselves as lucky, and those in the winter, September to February, unlucky. An earlier study had found that people born in those summer months were sensation-seeking, preferring new and even dangerous experiences to the repeated and safe, and winter, sensation-avoidant.

When the luck and month of birth study was repeated in the Southern Hemisphere where the summer and winter are flipped, the results held true with those in the colder months being unlucky and those in the warmer months, lucky.

Lucky people, Wiseman noted, are optimistic, outgoing, and open to new experiences. Unlucky people were clumsy, withdrawn, and anxious. Mind you, these are correlates and exist on a large scale. They do not describe or prescribe any single person’s life. They are population-level findings, not individual. I know there are exceptions, and I’d LOVE to read about them in the comments!

Luck and Autism

Because it is Autism Awareness-Acceptance-Celebration Month, I got to thinking about how much Wiseman’s description of unlucky people fit people with autism in general. Auties tend to be an anxious withdrawn lot even if they don’t have a diagnosable comorbid anxiety or mood disorder. They tend to be clumsy and shy. They behave oddly, so people are less likely to volunteer to help them.

I know when I am in need of help in the wider world, I am very reluctant to ask for it. It is too easy for me to imagine that people don’t want to help and would be bothered by my request. Cognitively, I know that’s not the case, necessarily, but emotionally, not so much.

I see people all the time and think of things that I’d like to say to them, but then don’t. Small talk doesn’t come easily. Approaching strangers doesn’t come easily, no matter how attractive or interesting they seem.

A few years ago, I injured my knee and had to be on crutches. During that time, I flew from Nairobi to Guangzhou. I was surprised at how insistent people were at helping me through the airport. Somebody volunteered to carry my bag for me. The check-in, screeners, and boarding folks all insisted that I go first as soon as they saw me. The flight attendants went out of their way to make sure I was comfortable and to let me know if I needed anything at all, they’d be right there to assist me. Seatmates did the same thing.

The only other time I got this much help was when I travelled with La Petite Fille when she was a baby and toddler. People go out of their way to help a single man with a cute baby or toddler. When I travel — and I’ve travelled a lot — no one volunteers to help and many times airport personnel act like you are a pest when you request help. Now, I wonder if my experience on crutches or traveling with La Petite Fille are how people who are lucky go through life.

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Image Attribution

‘Lucky Charm’ SanFrancisco Graffiti Art Close-Up” by anarchosyn is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

7 replies »

  1. The birth month findings have me wondering how that works. For instance, are parents more anxious with a baby born in the cold months, and more relaxed with one born in the warm months? Also, the winter babies are probably generally more bundled up, less physically unconstrained, than summer babies.

    People taking pity on a man traveling with an infant or toddler is no surprise. Everybody “knows” that men are just naturally incompetent and inexperienced at infant care. A woman traveling with such a child probably doesn’t get the same help, and is more likely to be blamed if the child is being difficult in some way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      The effect isn’t large, but it is still statistically significant. It probably does have something to do with how swaddled and careful parents are with their children in those first few months of life. Children begin crawling and walking with enough variability that it probably doesn’t have a significant effect as in parents keep children closer in the winter months and children born during winter are more apt to learn to walk then and therefore have their exploration curtailed. It would be interesting to revisit the finding as climate change alters our seasonal experiences.

      Ma Belle Femme never got any help when she traveled with our daughter alone. She was always just a bit miffed about the whole thing. La Petite Fille was a great traveler when she was an infant and toddler: quiet and very agreeable. She would do whatever. Never fussed or cried. Didn’t even kick the back of the seat.

      It’s funny what triggers those things. I often wonder how the reaction would’ve been different had I been Black or Muslim or if we were clearly mixed race. Probably not as much help.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 1 person

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