Most lucky people still think they earned their successes

Do the rich get richer because of a set of favorable circumstances and luck – or did they earn it, fair and square? Even if they were lucky, it may be extrapolated that many people who find themselves in positions of wealth, good real estate, or a great relationship tend to think they’ve worked for it, according to a new study published in Science Advances.

The truth may not be so simple.

It all started with a simple card game. The idea for the study was sparked when the researchers saw other students playing the two-person version of the game “President,” and they noticed that the winners were more likely than losers to attribute their triumph to skill, with the losers blaming luck – even though it’s a game consisting of only a small amount of skill, and the odds are stacked in the winner’s favor.

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Researcher Mauricio Bucca and his team then created a version of the card game that involved zero skill and recruited people to play it via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The game was pure chance: whoever was picked to play the first card always had the advantage to win that round. In some versions of the game, this advantage was enhanced even further. In other versions, the first card drawn was the weaker hand.

At the end of their game, the online players were asked if it had been fair. Winners were more likely to say “yes” at a rate of 60% – even when winners benefitted from receiving advantages such as strong cards from their opponent. The winners were even more likely than the losers to account their success to talent. Of course, the game required almost none.

The conclusions of the study have less to do with card games and more to do with ideas of inequality, said lead author Michael Macy, Cornell University’s Goldwin Smith Professor of Arts and Sciences, in a release.

“The findings from our study may shed light on perceptions of the fairness of silver spoons and regressive tax codes in an era of rapidly escalating economic and political division,” Macy said. “Beliefs about distributive justice and the relative importance of talent versus luck seem to confirm 50 years of research in social psychology on the universal human need to reduce cognitive dissonance.”