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Michael Lewis and the Extra Cookie

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jun 27, 2012    •    652 Views

During his 2012 Princeton Baccalaureate Address, financial writer Michael Lewis describes a college psychology experiment in which students were divided into teams, each composed of 3 people with a randomly assigned a leader. Given a social problem like drinking or cheating, the teams were asked to brainstorm a solution. Then, 30 minutes after beginning, 4 cookies were brought to each group.

3 people, 4 cookies.

Who got the extra cookie?

Lewis tells us that in every group, the leader, the person who was arbitrarily selected, “grabbed” the cookie and ate it with gusto.

As Lewis continues:

“This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense of entitlement that the cookie should be his.”

Connecting his life, his books, CEO pay and Wall Street excess to his cookie story, Lewis focuses on how luck relates more closely to success than people admit. As he points out, for Princeton grads, their parents, their affluent country and their prestigious university all reflected some luck in their lives that then increased, “their chances of becoming even luckier.”

So, he asked, when life presents you with that “fourth cookie,” will you grab it?

Here is the 14 minute video of his excellent address and here is the transcript.

Also, you might find economic Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s favorite equations interesting:

  • success = talent + luck
  • great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck


In Thinking Fast and Slow, Dr. Kahneman then uses some surprising golfing statistics, pp. 177-179, to illustrate his point and his discussion of our regression to the mean.

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