The Irrational Neuroeconomics of the Lottery
David Krueger MD
Each year Americans spend $7 billion on movie tickets, $16 billion on sporting events, $24 billion on books, and $62 billion on lottery tickets. The lottery is the most popular paid entertainment in the country.
What fuels our national pastime? Why do people continue to play the lottery?
An ancient part of our brain gets excited about the possibility of making money. This deep midbrain area, the nucleus accumbens (a.k.a. the pleasure center) can trump the rational forebrain and can even collectively influence entire economies. Mirror neurons and active amygdales contribute to the social contagion of everything from tulip bulbs to housing prices. Most of the factors influencing these decisions are outside conscious awareness.
But there’s one area where it’s all in the open. Everyman’s game: the lottery.
The anticipatory excitement mounts when three of your six numbers are called—or when two of the three scratch-off symbols match, and a third is still possible. The close miss, such as when the first two cherries align on the slot machine, ignites brain kindling. “Walk away,” says the rational forebrain. “No way,” counters the midbrain, “I almost won—just one more time.”
Why not spend $1 for a brief time of (irrational) hope? This buys a significant number of minutes of pleasurable fantasy of thinking about what might happen if you suddenly won. Where else can you dream so fancifully for $1? Escape to a better life for a buck?
Does hope come any cheaper? It is, of course, when one becomes habituated to the process of creating this hope that very small amounts of money become very smaller amounts of money.
We know from studies of the brain that it is the anticipation of pleasure or a win, rather than the win itself, that creates excitement and the release of dopamine (a chemical very appropriately named). When someone approaches a slot machine, there is a spike in dopamine before the machine is actually touched.
In all situations of bias and inequality of the rich and poor, in one arena everyone has an equal chance: the lottery. Never mind that it is almost impossible, it is impartial. The lottery, at least in fantasy, is the Great Equalizer. Never mind that it is fanciful and illogical, for a brief and shiny emotional moment it lights up an entire neighborhood in the brain—not one, however, where good business practices prevail.
The truly elite spend time concealing their wealth, while those without spend time aspiring. On average, in state lotteries, households that make less than $12,400 a year spend 5% of their income on lotteries. A Carnegie-Mellon behavioral economics team explained why poor people are so much more likely to buy tickets: they feel poor. Sad, since playing the lottery, a massively losing proposition, exacerbates the poverty of those with low income.
Our helplessness inspires us; it is a catalyst to create both effectiveness and autonomy. If it is an ersatz mastery—a temporary illusion such as the lottery, drugs, alcohol, or risk—it is self-limited and carries the danger of being used again. And again.