Poverty leads to playing lottery, study says

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Do you believe that playing the lottery can make you rich?

If you do, there's a good chance you're poor.

At least, that's according to a Carnegie Mellon University study published in the July issue of the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.

"The conclusions [of the study] are that the thoughts, feelings and cognitions related to poverty lead people to purchase lottery tickets," said Emily Haisley, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the department of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business.

The study -- conducted with 100 people at the temporary Greyhound bus station on Second Avenue -- found that participants who were made to feel subjectively poor were nearly twice as likely to buy scratch-off lottery tickets as a comparison group made to feel subjectively more affluent.

A second study, also conducted at the terminal with 100 people, found that when participants were reminded that while inequities exist in education, jobs and housing everyone has the same chance at winning the lottery, the group getting the reminder bought nearly three times as many lottery tickets as the group not given the reminder.

"Poverty creates a context for making decisions," said Ms. Haisley, who plans to begin post-doctoral studies in organizational behavior at Yale University in the fall. "That context involves feeling your income is low relative to society's standards, [that you're] disadvantaged relative to other members of society, like in getting a good job or getting a promotion."

And therein lies lottery's lure, she said. It provides the feeling of a balanced playing field, the sense that everyone has the same chance -- absurdly small as it may be -- to hit the jackpot.

Ms. Haisley had never bought a lottery ticket before undertaking the survey. Then she bought 1,000 to hand out with grant money from the Russell Sage Foundation.

Carnegie Mellon researchers influenced participants' perceptions of their wealth by asking a question about annual income in a general survey about Pittsburgh. The group made to feel poor was asked to provide its income on a scale that began at "less than $100,000," moving upward in $100,000 increments. The group made to feel subjectively wealthier reported its income on a scale that began with "less than $10,000" and increased in $10,000 increments, so that most respondents were in a middle or upper tier.

Participants received $5 for taking the survey and then were given the chance to buy up to five scratch-off lottery tickets. Those in the first group bought an average of 1.27 tickets compared to 0.67 tickets bought by the second group.

"Poverty consists of difficult individual circumstances and also low opportunities," said George Loewenstein, one of the study's co-authors and the Herbert A. Simon professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

"For a lot of low-income people, the only prospect of a sudden improvement in economic circumstances is playing the lottery."

There are numbers to back up the study's findings.

A 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission survey found that 51 percent of lottery tickets are bought by 5 percent of the players. That dovetails with a 1999 Consumer Federation of America survey done with Primerica Financial Services that found nearly half of respondents with an income between $15,000 and $25,000 believed winning the lottery was their best shot at riches.

To put it in economic terms, the lottery is the highest probability of opportunity to achieve a higher level of income, said William R. Eadington, a professor of economics and the director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"The rest of the rationale is that it's cheap," he said. "It's buying happiness."


Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.


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