Does beginner’s luck really exist or is it all in our heads?

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    (Shutterstock Image: http://shutr.bz/1GZUAKE)

    (Shutterstock Image: http://shutr.bz/1GZUAKE)

    Beginner’s luck. It’s an idea that’s been around for generations. It even has its own Wikipedia page. But does it really exist?

    To find out, I decided to investigate with my newly minted Drexel MD friend, Tom Schmicker. It all started last week, when we went to the bar to play some darts.

    “I taught Avir, he’d never played before,” said Schmicker. “And the first time I beat him pretty badly. But the second time, he beat me and I was pretty surprised by that because he didn’t just beat me, he beat me by a lot.”

    Let’s be clear. I humiliated him.

    “I wouldn’t say you humiliated me, I would say you had a pretty good stroke of beginner’s luck.”

    So this got us thinking. Beginner’s luck is more than just luck – it’s the idea that there’s actually some sort of tangible advantage to being a rookie, that you won because you were a beginner. But how does that work? You might have heard the idea of the beginner’s mind, in which a beginner is less bound by rules and is therefore able to outwit the more experienced player. Or the low vs. high pressure theory, in which the beginner expects nothing and therefore is not shackled by the pressure that the more experienced player feels.

    These explanations make sense. The only problem is that we couldn’t find any references to back them up. And the more we thought about it, we started to wonder, is this phenomenon called beginner’s luck even real, or is it all in our heads?

    Well, no, according to Larry Milliken. He’s the social sciences librarian at Drexel University, and I figured if there was something to find in the scientific literature, he could find it. At our request, he combed through multiple scientific, economic and psychological databases, looking for any evidence of beginner’s luck.

    “I expected to find a number of articles taking a look at whether it existed,” he said. “I didn’t see any of that. What I saw instead was a number of articles looking at the belief in beginner’s luck.”

    Even though beginner’s luck isn’t real, at least as far as any scientific study found, we do nevertheless perceive it. And as it turns out, that perception can influence us in very real ways.

    To understand that, we need to go to Israel and check out a small research study about house sparrows. This was out of the department of zoology at Tel Aviv University.

    “They took 60 sparrows, and then they let them forage on a plot of land,” said my friend, Schmicker.

    The plot had food buried in it.

    “But the plot of land was divided in half. On one side, they had these wells filled with food, and every well had a little bit of food in it.”

    This side was the low-risk, low-reward side for the sparrows.

    “On the other side, not every well had food in it, but some of the wells had a ton of food.”

    That was the high-risk, high-reward side. You might dig and find nothing, or you might hit the jackpot. So they let the birds loose – they wanted to see which side the sparrows would prefer.

    “Basically, it was completely random, which side the bird chose initially.”

    But eventually..

    “The sparrows began to exhibit preference.”

    Some of the sparrows began to prefer the low-risk side, getting a few seeds everywhere they went. Other sparrows preferred to stay on the high-risk side, patiently searching for jackpots. And whatever strategy they chose, they stuck with.

    So, you might ask, why wouldn’t a group of similar sparrows all follow the same strategy? What made them think differently? Was it gender? Was it genetics? Was it upbringing?

    “So seven of the sparrows had beginner’s luck,” he said. “They went to the risky side and hit the jackpot”

    And what’s interesting, is it was well worth the risk for the birds to go to the high risk area, because there was so much food there when they did find it.

    House sparrows aren’t the only ones who can be forever changed by experiencing beginner’s luck. It can happen to us too.

    You’ve probably heard many of the risk factors for developing a gambling addiction – male gender, unmarried, family history, the usual suspects. But another huge risk factor, one that doesn’t get much attention.. having had experienced beginner’s luck.

    A Norwegian study of over 4,000 gamblers showed that 55 percent of at-risk gamblers had experienced beginner’s luck vs. just 21 percent of not-at-risk gamblers. This all leaves us in a strange place because beginner’s luck is an idea with no scientific backing. And yet our perception of beginner’s luck is very real and can create huge, lifelong changes.

    So why do we so doggedly perceive something that isn’t there? To try to think it through, I spoke to Dr. Ed Gracely. He’s a professor of biostatistics at Drexel University. He told me about some of the common biases that could very well be playing a role.

    “You tend to remember things that are interesting and salient,” he said. “What’s the point of remembering all the times you did something and nothing interesting happened? If you had played darts against your friend for the first time and lost badly, would we be here having a conversation about how interesting that was?” 

    The fact that we remember the outliers much more vividly creates a flaw in our judgment.

    “What you’re doing is you’re implicitly calculating how often it is that beginners win,” he said. “And if you try 20 different things, and one time you had this wonderful success, are you calculating that that’s one out of 20? Or are you remembering the one and forgetting the other 19?”

    Beginner’s luck, most likely, is nothing more than a fluke. But it’s so spectacular that it sticks in our memory, we talk about it more often and we spread the belief. There may also be a more subtle bias at work here.

    “Somebody who does really well, purely by chance, on their first try,” he said. “Let’s say they’re playing darts, like you. You probably decided you like playing darts, and you continue playing darts. So what have we got? We’ve got Avir who did really well, keeps playing darts, he’s got a memory of how well he did the first time.”

    And the guy with no beginner’s luck gets no early encouragement, stops playing darts and isn’t around to tell other players about his lack of beginner’s luck.

    “So the people who are still in the field, a disproportionately high number of them, have a memory of having done well their first time, even if that was just chance.”

    And in this way, we’ve likely set the stage for a false belief to be truly felt and propagated. It makes sense.. but it’s still speculation.

    I met up with Tom, back at the bar, hoping to find some closure, something definite. So I challenged him to another game of darts – a tiebreaker.

    “And if I win, maybe it was beginner’s luck, but if you win, maybe you’re just some darts prodigy,” he said.

    For what it’s worth, Tom won.

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