British Columbia·Analysis

Why we love reading about lottery winners, even unhappy ones

From indulging a fantasy to trying to detect patterns, reading about lottery winners has its benefits, say psychologists.

'It invites us to indulge in the fantasy of what it would be like to win,' psychology prof

Ian Hirsh from Coquitlam, B.C., is the most recent Lotto 6/49 winner. (BCLC)

A man cave fit for a king, a new car, a European vacation — and helping out his kids.

Those are a few of the luxuries Ian Hirsch, of Coquitlam, B.C., will indulge in with the help of his $12.8-million Lotto 6/49 win this week.

As with all lottery winners, the B.C. Lottery Corporation sent out news of the windfall, which was then covered in most of the province's major news outlets.

And why not? Statistics from show our audience loves reading about people who beat the one in 14 million odds (in B.C., at least) of winning big.

What would it be like to win?

"I think reading about lottery winners is a little bit like buying a lottery ticket in that it invites us to indulge in the fantasy of what it would be like to win," says UBC psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn.

Even if we read about lottery winners making poor choices with their money, we can enjoy our smug speculation about what better use we would find with the money.- Elizabeth Dunn, UBC Psychology Professor

"What's pretty clear from happiness research is that thinking about winning the lottery is likely to make people happier."

As a leading researcher in the field of happiness studies and the co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, Dunn knows what she's talking about.

Her research has shown that the human mind loves to explore potential futures instead of living in the present, so an imaginary journey into a world paved with cash is an attractive option.

"That's actually very, very engaging to the human mind, and, I think, to a large extent it explains why we're attracted to stories about the lottery, but also why we play the lottery in the first place."

UBC researcher Elizabeth Dunn has focused her work on happiness and money. She says 'reading about lottery winners is a little bit like buying a lottery ticket.' (Elizabeth Dunn)

Happiness of winning debated

Whether or not actually winning the lottery would make us happier is up for debate.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, along with many other researchers, has argued our time-travelling brain doesn't always get it right. He says while people may picture themselves as happier after a huge win, research shows otherwise.

In a 2004 TED Talk, he explained that although most people expect winning the lottery will bring an equivalent boost of joy into our lacklustre lives, his research has found lottery winners aren't any happier than the rest of us.

Dunn disputes that claim, saying more recent studies have shown that some winners do, in fact, profit emotionally from their win.

And perhaps more importantly, most people who play the lottery are pretty darn sure it will make them happy — which is part of the reason why so many people love reading about lotto winners.

"Even if we read about lottery winners making poor choices with their money, we can enjoy our smug speculation about what better use we would find with the money," Dunn says.

Looking for patterns

Luke Clark, director of UBC's Centre for Gambling Research, says that "suspended hope" is what all forms of gambling are all about.

"We can see that's important across many forms of gambling, but particularly in the case of the lottery where the jackpot is really a life-changing sum," he says.

Clark cautions that in other types of gambling, like slot machines, where the delay before gratification is shorter, that anticipation can be addictive. He says lotteries don't tend to attract problem gamblers in the same way.

Luke Clark, director of the Centre for Gambling Research at UBC, says some people read about lottery wins hoping to detect a pattern to help them beat the system. (UBC)

​But those who like to indulge in reading about lottery winners may be looking for more than a dose of joy, Clark says. They may be looking to outsmart the system.

"A lot of the psychology behind gambling is about people's desire to detect patterns in random data, or maybe that kind of belief they can detect that pattern," he says.

According to research from the U.S., lottery sales after a recent win tend to increase temporarily in the region where the ticket was bought, he says.

Other benefits 

But both Clark and Dunn agree that lotteries tend to be one of the least problematic form of gambling.

Dunn says indulging in the fantasy of a win and picturing what to do with the earnings may have other benefits too.

"If your answer is you'd quit your job, well maybe that's a good idea to do even if you don't win the lottery," she says.

"Because if you're spending eight hours a day doing a job that you hate, then just fantasizing about winning the lottery might be a good way to prompt yourself to make other changes right now."


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