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For Many, Playing the Lottery Undermines Self-Control

New research refines our understanding of how materialistic thoughts diminish our ability to restrain our impulses.
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Do your waistline and/or credit card balance indicate you have trouble with self-restraint? If so, here’s a tip: Avoid playing the lottery.

Recently published research provides evidence doing so “tends to activate materialistic thoughts,” which in turn lead to a breakdown in self-control.

The problem, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, is that for most people, a lottery ticket leads to thoughts of the wonderful things you would buy if you hit the jackpot. That focus on concrete, specific items—a type of thinking psychologists call “low-level construal”—makes it very difficult to exercise self-control.

"People, upon entering a lottery, tend to think about specific purchases, and a rush of pleasurable thoughts accompanies them (e.g., 'I would buy a red BMW Z4 convertible')," writes Hyeong Min Kim of John Hopkins University. "These thoughts appear to crowd out other thoughts related to the downsides of spending, or more prudent ways the money might be used."

“Self-control is perhaps one of the most important attributes that a person needs to succeed. Materialism has a negative impact on it, and that is of concern to not only individuals, but also society.”

“Self-control is perhaps one of the most important attributes that a person needs to succeed,” he adds. “Materialism has a negative impact on it, and that is of concern to not only individuals, but also society.”

Thus it’s important to understand what triggers materialistic thoughts, and how they lead to a lack of self-control. Kim explored that equation in a series of studies.

The first featured 46 people from the New York metropolitan area, who were told they were taking part in two separate studies. First, they answered questions about how often, if ever, they played the lottery. Then, they took part in a quick-response task which measured how rapidly they would recognize certain phrases, including “Rolex watch” and “Gucci handbag.”

A bowl featuring 30 M&Ms was placed in each participant’s cubicle; they were told they could eat as many as they liked. Also, as they began, half of the participants were given an instant lottery ticket (with a $25,000 jackpot). They were instructed not to scratch it (and reveal any winnings) until the end of the session. The idea, they were told, was “to make this study fun.”

In fact, it was to see whether the idea of making a quick 25 grand would influence their behavior—which it did. “The participants who received a lottery ticket responded faster to the materialistic phrases, and consumed more M&Ms than those in the control condition,” Kim reports.

Another study featured 90 people, including 38 who bought a $1 lottery ticket at the beginning of the session. All were given three minutes to write down, in separate sentences, “any thoughts they were having.” Researchers then assessed whether they were thinking in concrete or more abstract terms.

Finally, they were asked whether they would prefer a $6 coupon or a $12 rebate on a $40 flash drive. The mail-in rebate required “a minimal level of effort,” but couldn’t be claimed for three weeks.

The results: “Participants who bought a lottery ticket preferred an immediate reward to a larger, delayed reward,” Kim writes. What’s more, the thoughts they wrote down were more concrete and specific than those of non-lottery players.

A final experiment pointed to a way out of this spiral. After being given a $1 lottery ticket, participants were asked either about “products or brands that they would like to buy if they won,” or about places they’d like to travel if they hit the jackpot. All were then given a similar choice as participants in the previous study: a $20 instant rebate on a $60 item, or a $28 mail-in rebate they would receive in a month.

Those who had written about possessions they were longing for were far more likely to choose the instant-gratification option than those who were thinking about travel (who were no more likely to make that choice than members of a control group). Writing about travel apparently led participants to think in more long-term or abstract ways, negating the unwanted effect of the lottery ticket.

“Lottery-induced self-control failure is not universal,” Kim concludes. But his research suggests it is “predominant.” He adds that plenty of other activities also activate “a burst of materialistic thoughts,” including “media filled with lavish consumption.”

That’s why you can’t stop snacking on Bon-Bons as you leaf through Vanity Fair.

So catalysts creating a materialist mindset are all over, and purchasing a lottery ticket is a strong one. If you do so, go right home afterwards—and keep the computer off. Some of those online sales will probably look pretty enticing.