The Secret to Artistic Success is…Luck

The Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a writer and someone who teaches an Aesthetics course, the cause of artistic success is a matter that I find rather interesting. When I was an undergraduate I was involved in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. In the course of the debate, I defended free will. The professor on the other side made an interesting point in claiming that I believed in free will because I wanted credit for my success. That remark stuck with me and I found it applied elsewhere, such as matters of luck (that is, chance that turns out favorable or unfavorable).

Since I have been a gamer for quite some time, I am well aware of the role (or roll) of chance in success. However, as the professor noted, I wanted credit for my successes and hence while I acknowledged the role of luck, I tended to minimalize its role. However, after having some modest success with my books and teaching Aesthetics for years, I came to accept the view that luck (that is, favorable chance) has a large role in success. Of course, this was a largely unsupported view. Fortunately, Princeton’s Matthew Salganik decided to investigate the matter of success and had the resources to do so.

In order to determine the role of chance in success Salganik created nine identical online worlds. He then distributed the 30,000 teens he had recruited for his experiment among these virtual worlds.  Each group of teens was exposed to the same 48 songs from emerging artists that were unknown to the teens. In return, the teens were able to download the songs they liked best free of charge.

One world was set up as the control world—in this world the teens were isolated from social influence because they could not see what songs their fellows were downloading. In the other eight worlds, they could see which songs were being downloaded—which informed them of what the other teens regarded as worth downloading.

This experiment was certainly well designed: each world is identical at the start and the test subjects (the teenagers) were randomly assigned to the worlds.  Given the quality and size of the experiment, the results can be safely regarded as statistically significant.

Given that the same 48 songs were available in each world, if quality was the defining factor for success, then it would seem to follow that each world should be fairly similar in terms of which songs were downloaded the most. However, Salganik found that the worlds varied a great deal. For example, 52 Metro’s song “Lock Down” was first in one world and 40th in another world. Salganik concluded that “small, random initial differences” were magnified by “social influence and cumulative advantage.” In short, chance was the decisive factor in the outcome. As a gamer, I certainly appreciated these findings and could easily visualize modelling this process with some dice and charts—like in games such as Pathfinder and D&D.

Lest it be thought that chance is the sole factor, Salganik found that quality does have some role in success—but much less than one might suspect. Based on additional experiments, he found that succeeding with a work of poor quality is rather hard but that once a certain basic level of quality is achieved, then success is primarily a matter of chance.

In terms of the specific mechanism of artistic success, a group of people will as a matter of random chance decide that a work is good. The attention of this group will attract more attention and this process will continue. Those who are drawn by the attention seem to engage in the reasoning that the work must be good and special because all the other people seem to believe that it is good and special. However, the work was

Interestingly enough, Leo Tolstoy seemed to have hit on a similar idea—although he obviously lacked the means to run the sort of experiment conducted by Salganik.  As Tolstoy said, “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as art, then a definition of art is devised to cover these productions.”  Tolstoy believed that approach failed to distinguish between good and bad art and thus he regarded it as flawed. With a tweak, this can be used to capture Salganik’s findings: “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as good, then it is believed by others to be special.”

Interestingly enough, the sort of “reasoning” that Salganik’s experiment seems to have shown is the Appeal to Popularity fallacy: this is the “reasoning” that because something is popular, it follows that it is good/correct. It also nicely matches the similar Bandwagon fallacy: that because something is winning, it follows that it is good/correct. Not surprisingly, this is grounded in the cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect: people have a psychological tendency to align their thinking with other people. In the case of Salganik’s experiment, the participants aligned their thinking in terms of their aesthetic preference and thus created a bandwagon effect. The effect is rather like the stereotype of the avalanche: a small, random event can set off a massive tide. Given that the process of selection is essentially not a rational assessment of quality but rather driven by cognitive bias and (perhaps) fallacious reasoning it certainly makes sense that the outcomes would be decided largely by chance. The same, if his experiment extends by analogy, would seem to hold true of the larger world.


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  1. “The same, if his experiment extends by analogy, would seem to hold true of the larger world.”


  2. Kevin Henderson

    This form of chance is true in science. Any qualified PhD physicist stands almost as much chance as another at developing extraordinary work. This is easily illustrated by the fact that even Nobel prize winning science can readily be understood by the vast majority of scientists in that field within a very short amount of time. It is not to suggest that a particular novel idea may come from any one individual, but different ideas do come from different people. And over time, any research field develops in a way that is mostly defined by consensus rather than individual progress. Overall, progress in science comes primarily from the community and the community’s response to individual contributions.

    Even Einstein’s contributions, as anomalous and profound as they were, would ultimately be uncovered by others.

  3. Doris Wrench Eisler

    I don’t believe Bach’s perceived genius, for instance, is a matter of luck or fashion. As a matter of fact, he went out of fashion after his death and wasn’t rediscovered for some time. There are many very good musical composers , some recognized now as having more merit than previously thought, but no one will take Bach’s place – ever. You may like his work or not, but you can’t say it isn’t extraordinary. Popular songs are in a different category and necessarily shallow for popular appeal: some may survive, but few in this category are “great”: they simply work, for the time being at least. Still, I don’t believe you can foist anything on the public and have it stick for any length of time. And time is the true test of art – on any level

  4. Doris,

    There are brains that seem to be genius brains, and we have become accustomed to labelling them as geniuses, because we can’t find any other explanation for what seems like a natural intuitive gift – especially when it emerges in young geniuses.

    We may be tempted to call it the luck of their genes – how fortunate they were to have them. But this is overly simplistic too, since some young geniuses seem to come from quite normal parents.

    So is it the luck of have a particular gene combination, the luck of having a not-so-special gene combination result in a lucky gene expression?

    What’s the relationship with other conditions of brains that we have thought of as not-quite-normal, such as Savant syndrome and autism generally? It seems some brains lack the common ability to be distracted by every day social busy-ness, but are particularly ‘gifted’ in some respect.

    Since a child’s genius, whatever its form, is not planned by the child, not imposed by their free will, then in that sense it is luck that they have it.

    We’ve heard from Mike before about his dedication to his running. That may seem to him as though it is drive and intentional free willed purpose to become so dedicated that sometimes it hurts. But to what extent is that the luck, or bad luck when it hurts, of an aspect of the biology of his brain and his body’s capacity to adapt, or complain?

    Evolutionists tend to react negatively to the 747 emerging from a junk yard analogy that ant-evolutionists use – how could random stuff, luck, result in us? The important point, the evolutionists explain, is that it’s natural selection at the point of selecting that selects out, filters out, that with a lower survival capacity – generally.

    But it’s still luck that plays a big role. It’s luck that causes the many mutations in genes, most of which are repaired, or don’t reproduce as cells to make it into the next generation. It’s luck that results in some change occurring and that happening to coincide with the environment at the time. Light fur related genes probably occur quite often in dark fur animals, but they are unlucky enough to occur at the time when the ground is dark. When an ice-age appears the dark fur genes are the unlucky ones that are selected out, until the species changes its fur colour to white. Or even more unlucky, the species is picked off by predators before it can adapt – extinction.

    Luck is just our perspective on observing chaotic systems. We get used to the order, the determinism of causality. When we can’t predict precisely but still see patterns we use probability to estimate outcomes. When we can’t even do that we call it indeterministic, random, lucky.

    Quantum stuff is still a puzzle. It appears ‘random’, and yet it is deterministic in its own way.

    I think randomness, ‘true’ randomness, is a vague notion, like infinity, that we become accustomed to using but we don’t really understand. They are abstract concepts that have utility in a god-of-the-gaps sort of way: I can’t count that high, call it infinity; I can’t deduce any deterministic pattern whatsoever, call it random.

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