by James Byard/WUSTL Photos

It’s comforting to think that we can be successful because we work hard, climb ladders, and get what we deserve, but each of us has been profoundly touched by randomness. Chance is shown to play a crucial role in shaping outcomes across history, throughout the natural world, and in our everyday lives. In The Random Factor, Mark Robert Rank draws from a wealth of evidence, including interviews and research, to explain how luck and chance play out and reveals how we can use these lessons to guide our personal lives and public policies.

Mark Robert Rank is Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. He has received numerous awards for his scholarship and books, and his research has been reported in a wide range of national and international media.

You provide several dramatic examples in the book of how luck has shaped human history. Can you share a couple?  

We often think of history along the lines of a single path. But history could just as easily have bent in many other directions had it not been for luck and chance playing themselves out differently. Pivotal moments in the past have been dramatically shaped by chance.

Had a speech by Adolph Hitler on November 8, 1939 lasted 12 minutes longer, he would have been killed by a bomb and perhaps much of the destruction and holocaust of WWII averted. Had a signaling officer aboard a Russian submarine not momentarily gotten his foot stuck near the top of the conning tower ladder during a confrontation in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a cataclysmic nuclear war probably would have occurred. Had an asteroid 66 million years ago hit the earth only 15 seconds later or earlier, the dinosaurs might very well be alive today and the human species never evolved. Had a random passerby not captured the murder of George Floyd on her phone, the atrocity and impact it has had on American society would never have been revealed. 

These are but a few of the examples discussed in the book regarding how history has been profoundly bent and shaped by randomness.

In The Random Factor you argue that there is a disconnect between the American ethos of individualism and the reality that so much of our lives comes down to luck. How has that played out in history and how does it shape our policy decisions today?

The history of the United States is marked by a couple of dominant themes that run completely counter to recognizing luck as an important element in life. Since the country’s beginnings, we’ve emphasized the importance of rugged individualism and having control of our destiny. There’s also been a strong belief in the concept of meritocracy – those who do well in life deserve it as a result of their talents, skills, and efforts.

Randomness upsets this apple cart. It suggests that while individual effort and attributes are certainly important, so too are luck and chance in influencing the twists and turns that happen in our lives. It also throws a splash of cold water on the idea that those who succeed do so only as result of meritocracy and deservingness. As I show in the book, much of the success and failure in life is affected by luck.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of our policy decisions and programs today fail to take this factor into account. The result is that there are very few policies in place to either buffer or take advantage of the impact of chance.

The way in which luck exerts itself and the impact that it can have upon an individual, are very much dependent on socioeconomic status.

Mark Rank

What do people get wrong about randomness?

The biggest thing that people get wrong about randomness is underestimating how prevalent it is in their lives and the world around them. When I was working on an earlier book about the American Dream, I interviewed dozens of people from many walks of life. During the course of those interviews something very interesting came to light. As I listened to the twists and turns in people’s lives, the role of luck and chance in shaping those twists and turns became quite apparent.

This caught me by surprise and led me down the road of researching and delving into the topic, culminating with The Random Factor.

It turns out that who we marry, where we live, the job we find ourselves in, the income we earn, the sports we watch, the schools we attend, our triumphs and tragedies, all of these and more are strongly influenced by chance and randomness. So too are many of the natural and scientific processes that occur around us such as the weather, natural selection, or scientific discoveries. It’s a fascinating subject and one that sheds a completely different light on who we are and the world in which we live.

A strong social safety net is, in many ways, insurance against bad luck. Do politicians need to do a better job effectively making that case?

Most definitely! Very few people realize that over the course of their lifetime the risk of directly encountering significant economic hardship is actually quite high. In my earlier research on poverty, I found that 75 percent of the American population will be impoverished for at least one year between the ages of 20 and 75. 

Much of the reason behind this has to do with bad luck striking a person. Losing a job, having a serious accident or illness, a family emergency, all of these and more are quite common at some point in a lifetime, resulting in economic distress.

A robust and revamped social safety net is essential for protecting individuals from the ravages of bad luck. The whole concept of social insurance is premised on this idea. The reason we purchase home or automobile insurance is not because we think an accident will happen to us today or tomorrow, but rather because bad luck may strike us at some point in the not-too-distant future. As I emphasize throughout the book, the random factor is our constant but unpredictable dance partner as we make our way across the floor of life. A better understanding of this can lay the foundation for a more comprehensive and effective social welfare state.

A robust and revamped social safety net is essential for protecting individuals from the ravages of bad luck.

Mark Rank

In America, people’s views on randomness are often entwined with their political allegiances— the right believing in self-determination much more than the left.  What are the implications of that?

When we think about the differences between today’s right and left, one rarely discussed differentiating factor is how much emphasis is placed upon the role of luck and chance. Those on the right are much more likely to discount the role of luck in influencing people’s lives. The implication is that people “make their own luck.”  For those on the left, there is a bit more of an acknowledgment that our lives can be shaped by chance events that may strike “out of the blue.” As a result, the left is more likely than the right to support policies such as a social safety net.

The recognition of luck is also a key difference between how Americans and Europeans see the world and social policy.  Europeans tend to acknowledge and accept that luck is a factor affecting life outcomes.  The economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser found that 30 percent of Americans believed that luck was important in determining income whereas 54 percent of those within the European Union said so. The result is that Europeans are much more likely to favor policies that partially counteract the influence of luck.

You write that sociologists “shy away” from studying luck. Why?

One reason is that by its very nature, luck can be extremely hard to measure and model. Also, the social sciences are generally interested in explanation and prediction, while randomness does not lend itself to such a purpose. And third, the role of chance runs counter to the sociological emphasis upon structural forces impacting the direction of our lives. Sociologists tend to focus on the influence of factors such as class, race, and gender upon life outcomes. Luck and chance might be viewed as contradictory to this largely deterministic take on the world.

What I argue in the book is that randomness adds a vital component to our social science understanding of the world. I use the analogy of currents and ripples to explain this. Obviously there are powerful currents that push our lives in particular directions, such as class, race, and gender. But within those currents are the ripples of randomness which have much to say about the specifics of our lives. In addition, I provide what I feel are some very unique insights into how luck can actually exacerbate the inequalities that we find in society. The way in which luck exerts itself and the impact that it can have upon an individual, are very much dependent on the socioeconomic status of that individual. In this manner, luck can facilitate the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.