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The other day, I bought a lottery ticket on a whim. It was the first time I had ever purchased a ticket that I didn’t have to scratch, and I had no idea what to do with it.
While I stared blankly at the rows of numbers and tried to figure out the unfamiliar terms, a couple next to me confidently read from their own tickets and shouted out numbers for a different game. Clearly, they were pros at this sort of thing.
It took me awhile to get the hang of filling out the “Pick 3” form, but once I did, I started to feel hopeful. “What would happen if, improbably, I won?” I wondered, as I penciled in random numbers. What would I buy? How much would I actually get?
It was fun to think about. The longer I fantasized about my sudden windfall, the more confident I felt. For a moment, I even got the urge to turn back, against my better judgment, and buy another ticket.
According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, my reaction isn’t surprising.
In a new paper that’s set to be published later this year, study author Hyeongmin (Christian) Kim argues that playing the lottery can temporarily spark materialistic thoughts in hopeful players and may even erode their self-control.
“Entering a lottery or the mere contemplation of such an act produces concrete (i.e. low-level) ideas about spending and consumption that prove difficult to resist once in motion,” writes Kim in the upcoming December 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
For example, says Kim, when people buy a lottery ticket, they often fantasize about the material purchases that they will buy once they claim their money. In addition, he writes, lottery players often feel a rush of pleasure when they imagine something specific that they’d like to buy — similar to the brief high some shoppers get when they carry home a new purchase.
But that’s when things get dicey, he says. “These thoughts appear to crowd out other thoughts related to the downsides of spending or more prudent ways the money might be used,” writes Kim. As a result, players become more susceptible to their whims and become less likely to wait for a larger reward if they can get a temporary hit right away.
Kim and his team at Johns Hopkins University came to this conclusion after conducting a series of psychological experiments in which researchers instructed study subjects to first buy a lottery ticket with a $1 million jackpot and then contemplate whether they’d like a larger gift in the future or a smaller gift right away. (A second group of study subjects that did not buy tickets were also asked to think about whether they’d prefer a smaller immediate gift or a larger gift at a later date.)
Subjects who bought the lottery ticket were not only more likely than study subjects who didn’t buy a ticket to have materialistic thoughts after buying the ticket; they were also more likely than other study subjects to choose the immediate gift, rather than wait for something better.
In another experiment, researchers gave study subjects new lottery tickets and asked one set of participants to write about trips they would take with the money they won and another set of participants to write about specific products they would buy. “The consumers who were asked to write about products or brands that they would like to buy with a possible windfall indicated stronger preference for a small, immediate reward than did those who wrote about travel,” said Kim in a Sept. 10 press release about the study.
The takeaway, he says, is that materialistic thoughts tend to undermine self-discipline in a way that more abstract thoughts do not — and that can lead to a lot of unhappiness for people in the long run.
“Self-control is perhaps one of the most important attributes that a person needs to have a successful life,” said Kim in the release.
So if you’re contemplating an unexpected windfall, try not to think about the shiny new things you might buy with that money. Instead, consider the experiences you could purchase — or the gifts you could give others. After all, those are the few things money can buy that research shows will actually make you happy.