Life definitely isn’t fair, new research shows.

For the first time, the relative influence of talent and luck has been modelled. And the results aren’t encouraging. Andrew Masterson reports.

She might be talented, but he might be lucky. Guess who'll end up with the money.
She might be talented, but he might be lucky. Guess who'll end up with the money.
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If you’re a highly talented or super-intelligent person, you may as well give up now, because you’re very unlikely to achieve the level of success you deserve.

On the other hand, if your main defining characteristic is mediocrity, keep right on trucking. Luck, quite literally, is on your side.

That’s the conclusion reached by a trio of researchers led by physicist Alessandro Pluchino of the University of Catania in Italy, in what is believed to be the first ever statistical modelling of the relative roles of luck and talent over time.

The research – currently posted on the preprint server Arxiv and awaiting peer review – was prompted by a degree of uneasiness in relation to what Pluchino and his colleagues describe as the meritocratic paradigm that forms Western cultures.

This model, they say, “is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, smartness, efforts, willfulness, hard work or risk taking”.

That’s all well and good, but there is ample evidence – the researchers cite a “vast literature” – to support the contention that having smarts does not in itself guarantee success.

There is also, they say, a very obvious disjunction between potential and outcome on a population basis. They note that qualities such as intelligence or talent occur in any population in a bell-curve distribution – that is, with a small number of very clever and very thick people at each end of the graph, with the middling bulk distributed across an arc spanning the space between.

Results, or success, in any population, however, is very differently configured. This can be described as a power law, with a very small number of people owning a very large amount of stuff at one end of the graph, followed by everyone else positioned along a precipitous drop and a very, very long tail.

As evidence, they cite a 2017 Oxfam report that reveals the eight richest people in the world own as much as the 3.6 billion poorest.

To assume that these eight fortunate folk are, by definition, the eight most talented, intelligent and skilful in the world is prima facie absurd. Therefore, their success must be conditioned by some other factor. And this, say Pluchino and his colleagues, is luck – or chance, or randomness, pick your term.

There are, they note, a wide array of studies showing that social or professional advantage can be very strongly influenced by random factors that have no bearing on innate ability.

Names provide multiple examples. There are studies showing, for instance, that scientists whose surnames begin with letters early in the alphabet are more likely to win promotion. People who use their middle initials are more likely to be regarded as clever. People with easy-to-pronounce names are more likely to win positions than those with difficult ones. Men with posh surnames are more likely to end up as managers than factory fodder. And women with masculine-sounding first names who become lawyers are more likely to find preferment than those with girly ones.

And, of course, some types of randomness are so obviously influential that they are rarely remarked upon. Someone born in Boston, for instance, is far more likely to end up working for a Fortune 500 company than someone who happened to be born in Bangladesh.

Correlation is not causation, however, and Pluchino and his team wondered if it was possible to construct a model that actually showed the influence of luck. And guess what? It turns out it is.

The scientists created what they called an agent-based computer model. A large number of individual people were plotted into a confined “world”. Each of the people was allocated a certain quantity of talent – and this amount didn’t change throughout the subsequent experiment.

Each was also allotted an amount of money (or, more precisely, capital). Every person began with the same amount. However, this could change depending on what happened when the model was running.

The researchers them introduced a certain number of randomly distributed bits of “luck”, some of it good and some of it bad. The luck and the people then circulated in the world – covering a time period equivalent to 40 years. If a person encountered a bit of bad luck, the capital was halved. If the encounter involved good luck, capital doubled. (Talent, remember, never changed.)

Pluchino and his colleagues ran the model multiple times, with several variations, but the results were pretty much always the same.

“The most successful agents are almost never the most talented ones,” they report, “but those around the average of the … talent distribution”.

The outcome, they add, shows the importance of lucky events in determining the shape and success of life – and how frequently that influence is underestimated or dismissed.

And, yes, the results also seem to confirm the less rigorous conclusions drawn by many authors of the “vast literature” alluded to earlier: in this world, the rich get richer and the clever become embittered.

“Since rewards and resources are usually given to those that have already reached a high level of success, mistakenly considered as a measure of competence/talent,” the scientists note, “this result is even a more harmful disincentive, causing a lack of opportunities for the most talented ones.”

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
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