Richard Wiseman: fortune teller
Academic and magician Richard Wiseman has made luck his business.
John Crace spoke to him
The Guardian Tuesday March 2, 2004
What do you call a one-time professional magician who's just finished a psychology degree at University College London, is on the hunt for a PhD topic and comes across an advert from Edinburgh University asking for a postgraduate researcher with a psychology degree and training in magic? A jammy bastard?
Richard Wiseman would settle for lucky, and if anyone knows about the meaning of luck it's him. For the past 10 years, off and on, Wiseman, professor in public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, has made luck his business. The results of his research were published in a book, The Luck Factor, which became a slow-burning bestseller, and since then he's been as much in evidence in the media as he has been on campus in Hatfield.
His work may be unashamedly populist, but it's still good science. He's a regular contributor to academic journals such as Nature, Science and the Psychological Bulletin; his work has been funded by both the Leverhulme Trust and the Wellcome Trust and he's lectured to the Royal Society; and in 2002 he received the Joseph Lister award from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. You can also take it as read that his work has made him a bob or two; Wiseman is one of the few academics who wouldn't have been pleading poverty in the AUT week of strike action.
You can't say he hasn't earned his day - or rather, years - in the sun. While some academics are content to snuffle around the edges of well-trodden areas of research, Wiseman had the savvy to identify an area that was largely untouched and make it his own.
"Psychologists had looked at luck before, but had considered there was no science to be found in chance and had abandoned their research," he says. "It seemed to me, though, that there were just too many people who considered themselves to be either lucky or unlucky for this to be a random phenomenon.
"I'm an extremely sceptical person and when I began my investigations I expected to find that the differences between the lucky and unlucky would be shown to be delusional, a matter of perception. Of course there were differences in perceptions of similar events, but it also became clear there was something else at work. By and large, lucky people were leading fulfilled, happy lives, while the unlucky were walking disaster areas. Somehow, lucky people were able to create opportunities for themselves."
Wiseman identified four principles at play among lucky people. They maximise their chance opportunities by having networks of friends and being relaxed enough to be open to different ways of achieving their goals; they are open to intuition and listen to their hunches; they expect to be lucky; they are able to see the positive side of bad fortune and so are better able to deal with it.
If you reckon this is just a load of new age psychobabble, think again - Wiseman has been happy to put his theories to the test. He acknowledges it is hard to quantify luck, but he decided to have a go anyway. "You can really only measure it against the goals people set themselves," he says. "Did they get the relationship, the job or the deal they wanted? We set up the Luck School in our laboratory at Hertford and asked for unlucky volunteers."
School is perhaps a little too formal a term for the project, which involves a few chats to Wiseman and a large chunk of homework, but the results speak for themselves. Large numbers of people report that their lives have been transformed. One local business has been through the process en masse and profits have since risen 20%; only last month, on a Channel 4 trial by Richard and Judy, an unemployed man ended up running his own business in next to no time. Coincidence? If so, there's a lot of coincidences floating around a self-confessed sceptic.
"There are only two types of person who cannot become lucky," Wiseman suggests. "There's the person who is happy to be unlucky, for whom misfortune is a central part of their identity. And there's the person who's not prepared to put the work in; there's a lot of effort involved in applying the principles."
He is quick to differentiate between luck and chance. A lucky person is just as likely to win the lottery as an unlucky one; similarly, a lucky person is just as likely to be the victim of a car crash or a serious illness as an unlucky one. "It would be wrong to think we did have control over every aspect of our lives," he points out. "But equally my research indicates we might have more control in certain areas than some people imagine. We are all subject to chance events; the key is how we respond."
Wiseman believes his first lucky break came when he was six years old. He went into the school library looking for a chess book, was misdirected into the magic section and never looked back. Confirmed pessimists, please note: Wiseman has no regrets that chance robbed him of the opportunity to become a chess grandmaster, but rejoices in his introduction to magic.
"I became obsessed with magic and would practise at every opportunity," he says. "I did endless kids' parties and became a member of the Magic Circle by the age of 16." He left school after A-levels and made a living doing the rounds of the Covent Garden piazza, restaurants and clubs. After three years of this he had had enough: "It seemed an awfully tough way to make a living for the rest of my life." He decided to study psychology, realising that what interested him wasn't the magic itself so much as the art of persuading an audience to like the person who was deceiving it.
During his postgraduate years at Edinburgh, Wiseman spent a long time testing psychics - "there were the frauds, and those who genuinely believed they had paranormal powers, but no, I didn't find any evidence to support a belief in psychics" - before moving down to Hertfordshire.
It's here that Wiseman's career takes on its own hint of the paranormal. While most newly qualified academics are hunting around for even the humblest temporary contract, Wiseman almost immediately found himself heading up his own research team of six or seven. So why did the university take such an outrageous punt?
"I think it helped that I was given core funding by the Perrott-Warwick fund," he says. And now the tale gets stranger still, for Perrott and Warwick were two extremely wealthy spiritualists who, on their deaths in the 30s, left a bequest to be administered by Trinity College, Cambridge, for research into the paranormal.
So how does Wiseman think Perrot and Warwick would feel, knowing their money had gone to someone who's gone out of his way to debunk the paranormal? "Well," he replies,"if they are watching me from up there, then they'll know they were right and I was wrong. In which case, they only have to send me a message."
Wiseman knows some other academics get sniffy about his work, but he's not that bothered. "By definition, my work brings me into contact with a lot of people who academics don't generally mix with," he argues. "How else can you test the validity of claims made by those who believe in the paranormal other than engaging them in scientific experiments?"
It's clearly been a lot of fun along the way. He's worked with Derren Brown - "great magician, but no paranormalist" - as well as running into Indian gurus and West Coast psychics, not to mention ghost-hunting in Hampton Court Palace. And he's still not found any evidence of the paranormal.
"I've found plenty of evidence of unscientific approaches to data, but have never come across a paranormal experiment that can be replicated," he says.
Wiseman is no clairvoyant, but even he must reckon the future is looking rosy, with plenty more radio and TV appearances planned and a new book on spotting the opportunities others have missed - something he knows a thing or two about - due in September.
He finishes his coffee and there are a few moments left to get the definitive word. Crop circles, UFOs, alien abductions? "Nothing paranormal," he says. So what about weapons of mass destruction? Were they a paranormal phenomenon?
"Ah," he says. "There's a big overlap between national intelligence and magicians. The intelligence community want you to believe something's there when it's not."
Would he have made a good weapons inspector, then? "Yes, but I'm too much of a coward."
Not just lucky, but careful.