The Surnames Experiment

The Luck Factor describes how lucky people have much broader social networks than others, and how this increases the likelihood of them experiencing lucky encounters. In early 2004 Prof Richard Wiseman teamed up with The Daily Telegraph and The Cheltenham Festival of Science to extend our understanding of the relationship between luck and social connectivity.

The concept for the ‘surnames experiment’ was based upon an idea briefly mentioned by American journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his book, ‘The Tipping Point’. To explore the notion of social connectivity, Gladwell carried out an informal study in which he presented people with a list of surnames and asked them to indicate if they knew people with that surname. Prof Wiseman wondered whether it might be possible to use the idea as the basis for a questionnaire that could both quantify the relationship between luck and social connectivity. Thousands of people were asked to classify themselves as either lucky, neutral (neither lucky nor unlucky) or unlucky. Next, they were presented with a list of 15 common British surnames, and asked to indicate if they were on first name terms with at least one person with each surname.

The results were dramatic and demonstrated the huge relationship between luck and social connectivity. Almost 50% of lucky people ticked eight or more of the names, compared to 35% of luck-neutral people and just 25% of unlucky people.

These results provide a striking confirmation of the ideas outlined in The Luck Factor.

The questionnaire also provides a simple but highly effective tool for quantifying the degree to which we are connected to one another. It is a tool that could be used to answer exciting questions about luck in many different settings. Do lucky school children have higher scores than unlucky children? Are lucky employees better connected within their company than unlucky employees? Is there a relationship between the luck of an entire community and the degree to which the people living in that community are connected to one another?