Are the successes in my life a result of ability (the quality I produce) or chance?

NPR kicked off a story about the Mona Lisa. It’s a popular painting – the most popular painting. Each year thousands swarm the Louvre in Paris to get a glimpse of her enigmatic smile. The Mona Lisa is famous.

But is she famous because she’s a spectacular work of art? Or is she famous because she’s the result of chance encounters (i.e. because she was acquired by the King of France, displayed at the Louvre, a product of a masterful inventor who was acknowledged as such by Italian authorities)?

This question – chance vs ability – has historically been untestable. We live in one reality and in this reality the Mona Lisa is famous.

Until Princeton professor Matthew Salganik decided to come up with a rather genious experiment. He would create multiple identical worlds online filled with the same works of art, get thousands of people to pick which work of art they liked best, and if the same works of art rose to the top in each world, then we could reasonably conclude it was the actual art work that determined its greatness.

The experiment

From NPR:

[blockquote source=”Good Art Is Popular Because It’s Good. Right?”]

To test how much of success should be attributed to chance and how much to quality, Salganik created a website that randomly funneled the 30,000 teenagers he recruited online into nine identical worlds.

Each of these worlds exposed the teens to 48 songs from emerging artists — bands that hadn’t yet been signed so were totally unknown to the teens. The deal was that after listening to the songs, the teens could download the ones they liked best for free.

Now in one world — the control world — they couldn’t see which songs their peers were downloading so there was no social influence. But in the other eight, the teens could see which songs had been downloaded before, so they knew what other people thought was good.

“So we had the exact same 48 songs competing against each other, we had the exact same initial conditions, everything starts with zero downloads, and we have indistinguishable groups of participants, because they were randomly placed into the world,” Salganik says.

[/blockquote]

And what did he find?

[blockquote source=”Good Art Is Popular Because It’s Good. Right?”]

Different songs become popular in different histories — and not in small ways, either.

….there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure — money, race and a laundry list of other things — and after this work, which one person in the field described as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do similar studies with parallel worlds that suggest that quality does have at least a limited role. It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

[/blockquote]

What does this mean?

I think studies like this give us moments to pause, look at the world around us, and consider the implications and how these implications affect our approach to the people around us.

Take my life as example. In terms of the biggest element of chance – who my parents are – I scored the jackpot. Middle class, a reasonably healthy pool of genes, educated, and willing to throw considerable resources at the development of their children. I try not to confuse the fact that I was born on third base with those who had to run, on their own, from the start of a pitch.

Or consider my current position as Director of Technology. One reason I landed this wonderful gig was that members of Hamilton CSD viewed a presentation by me at an informational session. The curious thing about that day was that I wasn’t supposed to present. My boss at the time had pneumonia and I filled the spot. Pneumonia as a matter of a chance.

If you think that much of a persons success (or lack of success) is up to chance, perhaps it allows you to empathize with an individual better. Or as Salganik points out, you treat them better.

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March 29, 2014

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