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What matters more when it comes to rewarding success: that the success was earned through skill or that it was the result of a fortunate break?

Consider the sport of football (soccer), where the objective is to outscore your opponent (as in most games). Is it skill or luck if a player shoots for goal, hits the post, and the ball then finds the back of the net?

We recently conducted research on that topic. When players hit a post or crossbar while attempting to score, we were able to isolate instances in which seemingly insignificant differences in performance led to drastically different results in a game.

Congratulations to the Goal Scorer.

Sports journalists gave matches to players who scored goals from such shots a much higher rating, and their coach increased their playing time in the following game.

Better performance following a goal or a better anticipated performance in the following game cannot account for this effect. In essence, a player who scored was excessively rewarded compared to a player whose shot was very similar but missed by a few centimeters.

Having the right connections, being in the right place at the right time, and making decisions that had an unexpectedly positive outcome all contribute to success.

Luck or Skill?

When deciding whether to trust and reward a successful person for their success, separating performance from luck is a crucial problem.

An employer, for instance, needs to know whether achievements on a candidate's resume reflect skill and effort or just pure luck. A grant reviewer must decide whether a researcher with a strong publication was simply fortunate to work with a talented group of people.

It is challenging to separate skill and effort from luck because success is a faulty barometer of performance. Effort and skill are typically difficult to observe.

To determine whether a choice was the best one given the options available at the time, it is frequently impossible to know all the possible choices that could have been made. Additionally, it is frequently impossible to determine whether someone could have made a better effort in a particular circumstance.

A Measure of Success

Researchers recently developed a model of economic success in which agents with various levels of abilities encountered a variety of random events, either advantageous opportunities or unfavorable mishaps, in order to quantify the role of luck in success.

In simulations, the researchers noticed that the success distribution tended to be concentrated at the top with a few agents ultimately succeeding much more than the others.

However, they also discovered that those with the greatest talent rarely had the greatest success. The most prosperous people, however, were usually the ones who were lucky.

Therefore, be careful the next time you are about to admire someone for their perceived success. Be careful not to overlook deserving performers who were simply unlucky. Was it due to their skill and performance or just a lucky break?

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