Aug 06

Luck vs Merit (Part 2)


This weekend Robert Frank wrote about the respective roles of luck and skill in achieving success in this Economic View column in The New York Times. Frank’s piece hits on many of the same themes as my post from a couple of weeks ago on how the way we think about luck and merit affects how we see the world. That post, incidentally, has been cross-posted at the Creativity Post website, which is well worth checking out (thanks to Sam McNerney for helping to make that happen).

Here are the opening paragraphs:

There may be no topic that more reliably divides liberals and conservatives than the relationship between success and luck. Many conservatives celebrate market success as an almost inevitable consequence of talent and effort. Liberals, by contrast, like to remind us that even talented people who work hard sometimes fall on hard times through no fault of their own.

It’s easy to see why each side is wary of the other’s position. Conservatives, for example, understandably fret that encouraging people to view life as a lottery might encourage them just to sit back and hope for the best. Liberals, for their part, worry that encouraging people to claim an unrealistically large share of the credit for their own success might make them more reluctant to aid the less fortunate.

Frank goes on to describe a study that tests the role of luck and merit on the success of a music recording. In the study (PDF), sociologists Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts set up an online “market” in which people can download and rate a set of 48 relatively obscure indie songs (the downloads are free in exchange for providing a rating). In a control condition people simply listen to the music and rate it. This serves as an objective rating of the songs’ quality.

In other versions of the experiment, the researchers randomly made some songs appear to be more popular and have better ratings than others. The effect on subsequent ratings, as the study’s authors put it, was that “the best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.” Frank describes how one song, that had ranked 26th out of 48 in the control condition, was ranked as low as 40th in one version, but all the way up at #1 in another. Here’s his takeaway from the study:

Early success — even if unearned — breeds further success, and early failure breeds further failure. The upshot is that the fate of products in general — but especially of those in the intermediate-quality range — often entails an enormous element of luck.

In the end, both conservatives and liberals views were confirmed, at least in part: you have to be good to be successful but you also have to be lucky. With the hard work of these researchers, Bob Frank, and others (as well as a healthy dose of luck) maybe partisans on both sides will be willing to lay down their caricatured versions about what the other side supposedly believes causes success.

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  1. Raymond

    Wow, this post is good, my younger sister is analyzing these
    things, thus I am going to tell her.

  2. Al

    All the study proves is that choosing how to market a product is as, if not more, important than the intrinsic qualities of the product itself, when trying to predict its popular success. Marketing is a skill. The random application of that skill leading to random results (this is what the study proves) is not an outcome that can be used to infer the greater role of chance in a system. In the real world, skill is not applied randomly. This study does little to show that “luck” plays any significant role in achieving success, and any attempt to make that leap is only an indication of one’s desire for it to be true.

    1. Muna

      Marketing was not involved in the study in any way; because of that, the first few hits were random. More over, your comment doesn’t explain big Hollywood releases that crash and burn, while other smaller releases can make lots of money. There’s no direct link between marketing and success. Your comment does little to show that “skill” or “marketing” play any significant role in achieving success, and any attempt to make that leap is only an indication of your desire for it to be true.

      1. Al

        Wow, Muna. Cool dog. I’m going to play nice and simply state that some of the things you said are indefensible. It doesn’t appear you have a firm grasp on the concept of marketing. You may want to look into it. I don’t know if it will help. But it can’t hurt.

        1. Muna

          Feel free to go ahead and explain!

  3. Al

    Well, if you insist… Ok, first of all, a cursory examination of any definition of the word “marketing”, such as what you might find in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marketing) or elsewhere typically says something along the lines of “Marketing is the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers”. In the study discussed in this blog post, the researchers used a control group of people who rated music on its own merits and compared this to a test group where the researchers arbitrarily chose certain songs to “highlight” by showing ratings which were assumedly given by other users. What they were ostensibly doing was marketing these songs, and in fact they were using techniques which are quite common in the real world… product placement and taking advantage of the “herd” mentality of consumers. The fact that they were marketing these songs in the test group is quite obvious, so your statement “Marketing was not involved in the study in any way” is just patently false.

    Marketing is both a science and an art as is evidenced by the volume of literature which has been generated about this topic, and the amount of academic work that has gone into it. Things that can be studied and learned and things which derive from people’s natural talents all fall under the term of “skill”. Marketing is a skill. Some people are better at it than others, and in any given circumstance, some people may apply it better in one instance, than in another. Now, marketing skill Is not the only factor which determines the success of a product. It also takes capital (ostensibly to pay for the quality and volume of marketing). And having a quality product doesn’t hurt either. But of these three factors, the first two (marketing and the money that buys it) are more important, sometimes by a wide margin, than product quality. Your Hollywood example demonstrates this perfectly. Yes, sometimes lavishly marketed, big-budget films fail, at least in a relative sense and sometimes small-time films succeed, again in a relative sense. However, these are the exception… not the rule. The majority of big-budget films, particularly of the “sequel” variety, are total crap when examined in an objective manner. Yet these films generate hundreds of millions of dollars. This is why film studios keep churning them out. And the majority of small-time films, which may be of high quality indeed, never get seen by a large number of people. There could be no cleared example of the power of marketing when it comes to predicting the success of a product.

    So, your statement, “There’s no direct link between marketing and success”, is just so absurd on its face. It would be just like saying “there’s no direct link between studying and learning a subject”, or “there’s no direct link between the act of hunting and the capturing of prey”. Sometimes people study and they do not learn. Sometimes people or animals hunt and they do not capture prey. This does not mean that the one is not directly linked to the other. Those people who are “better” at studying generally learn more. Those people or animals who are better at hunting generally capture more prey. Those people who are more talented at marketing products, generally have more successful products than those who are not.

    Now, back to the study and blog post that originated my comments here. The basic thing the study deals with is the question of causality, which is certainly an energetically studied subject in the field of physics. The author and researches would like to say that this nebulous concept of “luck” is the most important antecedent of most outcomes… cause and effect. I’m not going to say that luck, even if it can be defined, plays NO role in the achievement of success. I am not omniscient. However, I do believe that whatever role it plays is quite small and probably insignificant compared to all the other factors. And too often, as a society, we look at successful outcomes and attribute them to chance, as opposed to the likely long string of skill and effort which were the real genesis of the success. I suppose it makes people “feel” better if they believe that they, too, could achieve success without putting in the effort or having the requisite skill. If only they could get lucky. This has more to do with human psychology (a topic more widely studied than even marketing), than the nature of causality in the universe.

    Lastly, on the topic of politics which the author injected. While I would certainly support the “conservative” view of things when it comes to the role of luck versus the “liberal” viewpoint, this does not mean that I believe that, as a society, we should completely discount and ignore those who have not found success. I firmly believe the concept of helping the less successful (even the term less fortunate shows an inherent bias towards believing that luck plays a major role) is not only a moral imperative, but it even fits completely within a world view of survival of the fittest. I believe our civilization benefits as a whole by helping the weakest among us, just like I believe our civilization benefits as a whole when individuals are more unencumbered to pursue their own desires. The political split does not necessarily come in whether helping is a good thing, but rather the mechanism by which that help should be applied. This is the age-old disagreement between conservatives and liberals… the role of government in society. I will not open that can of worms. But I will say this – when liberals attempt to “level the playing field” by either discounting achievement or raising mediocrity and failure to the same status as achievement, whether by introducing nonsensical concepts of the primary role of luck or anything else, they are engaging in an activity which is destructive to our civilization.

    1. Muna

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply—I absolutely agree with some of your statements. However, I would love to see what you have to say after reading the study, because you make a few assumptions about it that are false. (The big one: the researchers never chose any songs or used any marketing tactics. The experimental design was different.) I’d be really curious to hear what you have to say about it afterwards… and I’d also love to know if you’ve ever read The Black Swan or Fooled by Randomness.
      I do agree that there’s a link between marketing and success, but the more I learn about information cascades, the harder it is for me to ignore the impact that small differences in the beginning can have on overall success or outcomes, and how those initial differences can be caused randomly.

  4. Al

    The full text of the study was unavailable to me, but I think you can glean their deductions from the abstract and some of the supporting materials. They state that, while inherent quality played some role, that the addition of “marketing” activities did not lead to greater predictability and in fact it was the opposite. This is what I was getting at in my original comments when I said that the fact that the random application of a skill (marketing in this case) leads to unpredictable results does not make a case for randomness being a key driver. In the real world, skills are not typically applied at random. In fact, part of the “skill” in many efforts is the finding of and making use of patterns where none appear to exist.

    As for The Black Swan, I read that, though it was some number of years ago. My recollection of the book’s main thesis isn’t so much that randomness is integral to everything, but rather that as humans, we tend to look at a rare and particularly negative events with 20-20 hindsight and decide that they should have been predictable, and in many cases avertable. We keep getting better at prediction, yet rare black swan events continue to occur, so the question becomes, why the emphasis on prediction, since unforeseen events will always happen.

    With regards to your remaining comments on starting conditions or the “butterfly effect”, I can’t say I know enough about chaos theory or determinism to speak on that, but I will say this. Randomness is usually a euphemism for “unexplained”. When things become apparent or understood, they are no longer random. If you believe in the current view of the world as describe by modern physics, there is no random point, except perhaps the moment of the big bang. Everything after that point can be explained by a logical string of cause and effect. Even the areas of physics that deal with unexplainable events (quantum physics, for instance), deal in probabilistic predictions. You can’t tell where an electron is in an atom, but you can predict a region where it might be given certain circumstances and outside influences. The same goes for predicting success in the real world. Given a hundred products, you might not be able to predict exactly what level of success one might have, but you can predict a general likelihood of success, given the product’s innate characteristics and outside influences (marketing rears its ugly head). This predictability has no more to do with luck than predicting the state of electrons in an atom.

    In the end, luck is a psychological crutch. It explains the unexplained. It excuses failure. It doesn’t drive anything except some people outlook of the world.

    1. Muna

      Once again, “marketing” played no role whatsoever in the study. Your willingness to draw conclusions and stubbornly adhere to them without a full understanding of what’s being discussed make it hard to take the rest of what you have to say seriously, especially since it’s so riddled with bitterness and faulty logic.

  5. Al

    Alas, it appears I have made the mistake of taking you and your opinions seriously. I guess I should have known better given your thinly-veiled and sophomoric, wise-ass response to my original comments. To wit, I gave you too much credit. I shall not make the same mistake again. I think the emotion you regard as bitterness is actually bemusement. I am often bemused by people who find fault in other people’s logic, yet are incapable of explaining the fault. Apparently your system of logic has as its golden rule that all other systems of thought are so invalid that no additional explanation is merited. It’s as if you speak the only legitimate language in the universe, and everyone else is just clicking and clacking a bunch of gibberish. How nice that must be for you.

    I will leave you to cling intellectually, emotionally, physically, and in any other manner you wish, to this nebulous concept of “luck”. I am certain this has served you well in your life.

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