How Four Nobel Laureates Got Lucky
An award-winning study shows the importance of luck versus talent
Every October, prominent academics in their ivory towers silently wonder if this could be their year, to capture the most prestigious accolade of all, a Nobel Prize. The announcements are followed by black-tie events in Stockholm in December. Less well known is a ceremony that has taken place each year in September at a gala ceremony in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. It involves Nobel laureates, but as presenters and not recipients. I’m talking about the Ig Nobel Prizes. According to their website, the Igs “honor achievements that make people LAUGH, then THINK. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”
In 2022, the Applied Cardiology Prize went to research on “seeking and finding evidence that when new romantic partners meet for the first time, and feel attracted to each other, their heart rates synchronize.” The Biology Prize went to research “for studying whether and how constipation affects the mating prospects of scorpions.” And the Engineering Prize went to research “for trying to discover the most efficient way for people to use their fingers when turning a knob.” Lots of laughs indeed.
But what really caught my attention was the Economics Prize. It went to a team of Italian researchers Alessandro Pluchino, Alessio Emanuele Biondo, and Andrea Rapisarda, “for explaining, mathematically, why success most often goes not to the most talented people, but instead to the luckiest.”
Talent vs Luck
In much of the Western world, we live in meritocracies, epitomized by the American dream: if you are talented in some respect — say as an entrepreneur with a great idea — and work hard, you will be rewarded with successful achievements. But consider a different paradigm, that adds luck to the equation. In such a model, it is true that you need some degree of talent to be successful, but it’s almost never the case that the most talented individuals are also the most successful. On the contrary, the most successful people will generally be averagely talented, but sensibly lucky. And yet, in our society, we provide excessive resources and honors to people who are generally luckier than…