The Knicks Won. Let's Gamble!

Researchers link risky choices to unexpectedly positive circumstances, like sports wins and sunny days.
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Researchers link risky choices to unexpectedly positive circumstances, like sports wins and sunny days.
(Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

(Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

The lottery, it's been said, is a tax for people who are bad at math, yet quite a lot of presumably intelligent people take the risk buying lottery tickets at least once in a while. Maybe they think it's fun, maybe it's an addiction, or maybe some people really are just that bad at math. Or, a new study argues, maybe it's just a sunny day, the Knicks won, and people are feeling good.

"People in a good mood are more willing to gamble—or, more broadly, to accept risky bets," write neuroscientists Ross Otto, Stephen Fleming, and Paul Glimcher in Psychological Science. That's perhaps because people in a good mood tend to make overly optimistic assessments of their situations in everything from high finance to professional sports. If so, then whatever puts people in a good mood—even simple things, like a sunny day or a home team win—could increase the chances they'll gamble.

"People in a good mood are more willing to gamble—or, more broadly, to accept risky bets."

Otto, Fleming, and Glimcher tested that idea in about as big a way as they could imagine, first by looking at whether a connection between particularly good (or bad) sports news could influence New York State Lottery sales in each of 174 ZIP codes in the city. In particular, the researchers computed a weighted average of wins and losses for the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Rangers, and Knicks, which they interpreted as the probability the teams would win their next games. Then they computed a "prediction error." For instance, if the probability the Yankees would win was 25 percent and they won their next game, the prediction error would be 0.75—a particularly surprising win.

While the effect was small, unexpected wins and losses did appear to increase sales. Several unexpected wins on one day, for example, could increase lottery sales by about $160,000 compared to an average day, or a few cents per capita. Unexpected losses, the researchers found, suppressed lottery ticket sales by an even larger amount.

Follow-up studies found that unexpectedly sunny days, defined similarly to unexpected wins and losses, had similar effects, and that the effects were not confined to any particular neighborhood or socioeconomic status—somewhat surprising given that lottery tickets are disproportionately purchased in low-socioeconomic status neighborhoods.

"Indeed, we found compelling relationships between positive prediction errors and lottery gambling across two disparate domains—professional sports wins and sunshine levels—suggesting that the malleability of gambling attitudes may generalize, more broadly, to other positive or negative outcomes that occur outside of residents’ control," the authors write in Psychological Science. "Taken together, our results reveal a remarkable malleability to human risk taking."

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