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The Lucky Effect

March-April 2007

Pretend that you’re five years old. A grownup in a white coat tells you about Jane, who found $5 on the sidewalk; Johnny, who was splashed by a passing car; Jim, who helped his mom bake a cake; and Sue, who took a toy from her little brother. After each story the grownup asks, “How much do you like Jane [or Johnny, or Jim, or Sue]?” To answer, you must point to a large frowning face (really don’t like) or a large smiling face (really like) or one of four in-between faces. Which face would you pick?

If you’re like the 32 five- to seven-year-olds in a recent study of bias in children, you’ll surprise everyone with how much more you prefer the lucky to the unlucky kids. As expected, you’ll also know the difference between doing something good or bad on purpose and having something good or bad happen by accident. And you’ll like the kids who intentionally did a good thing over those who did something bad even more than you like the lucky ones. But your preference for more fortunate peers will nevertheless be part of a “whoppingly big” effect, according to doctoral candidate in psychology Kristina Olson, lead author for the research published in Psychological Science. “I don’t think any of us expected the ‘lucky effect’ to be that large.”

Stephanie Mitchell / Harvard University News Office
Even young children appear to prefer people who are lucky, as well as the groups to which they belong.

Would such bias spread to new members of a group experiencing fortune or misfortune? “How might seeing news of Hurricane Katrina influence kids’ perceptions of black people who are living in Ohio?” asks Olson. To begin testing this issue, she and her coauthors and advisers—Cabot professor of social ethics and Pforzheimer professor at Radcliffe Mahzarin Banaji, Berkman professor of psychology Elizabeth Spelke, and Carol Dweck, Ransford professor of psychology at Stanford—conducted a second study. Here 43 five- to seven-year-olds “meet” cartoon children with nearly identical facial expressions but different T-shirt colors. Three of the blue-T kids are lucky (e.g., putting money into a candy machine and getting two candy bars), and three of the green-T kids are unlucky (e.g., riding in the car when it breaks down). The other two in each group simply like to eat oatmeal or ride a bike. Then two new kids appear on screen wearing blue and green shirts but without further description. “Who do you like more?”

The results were “even more shocking” than those of the first study, says Olson. The children “were overwhelmingly more likely to prefer the member of the group that had experienced lucky events, despite the fact that this person did not experience a lucky or unlucky event as far as they knew, and despite the fact that group membership wasn’t perfectly predictive of whether they’d experience a lucky or unlucky event,” she explains.

For ethical reasons, Olson and her colleagues chose trivial events to begin their research; they don’t know if children would extend these preferences to more extreme events such as Hurricane Katrina. In such cases, Olson can imagine that “either kids’ evaluations become more extreme, or ideas like empathy come into play and they think, ‘Wait a minute, that’s terrible. How can I help?’”

The lucky effect, notes Olson, could prove to be “one of the early seeds” of system justification, the controversial theory (formulated by social psychologist John T. Jost, RF ’03, Banaji, and others in the 1990s) that adults are motivated to defend the status quo as fair and legitimate even at the expense of personal or group self-interest. That theory has been cited as a possible explanation for the persistence of social inequality from one generation to the next. As young children observe some groups experiencing greater fortune or misfortune than others, they may decide, “‘They wouldn’t have such good stuff if they didn’t deserve it’ or ‘They wouldn’t have such bad stuff if they didn’t deserve it,’” Olson explains. “In the process of trying to make sense of the world, they may actually come to justify the world as it is. We have some work in progress [that looks] at whether kids not only like the lucky person more, but actually think the lucky person is a better person.”

Might the lucky effect be a vestigial survival instinct? “If we continue to find these preferences across very different cultures and at even younger and younger ages, then there may be more to tell about whether this could have been evolutionarily beneficial, though the data to date cannot yet address this possibility,” acknowledges Olson. Social psychology has shown that adults tend to prefer individuals and groups who are more fortunate. Yet because lucky and unlucky events happen randomly and cannot predict future behavior or results, she adds, tracking lucky individuals is not “rational.” Because this irrational preference could be learned behavior, Olson and her colleagues speculated that they might not see it in five-year-olds. “But that’s not true,” she says. “It turns out that five-year-olds are just as irrational as adults.”

 ~Harbour Fraser Hodder

Kristina Olson e-mail address:

Kristina Olson website: