The Cost of Equal Opportunity

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Science  15 Aug 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5891, pp. 892
DOI: 10.1126/science.321.5891.892b

Lotteries have become a widespread means of generating billions of dollars for state treasuries in the United States. The low chances of winning life-style-altering prizes are prominently posted, yet many people, especially those in low-income brackets, pay $1 in order to receive only 50¢ in return, on average. What motivates such financially maladaptive behavior? Haisley et al. suggest that one contributory factor is the psychological desire to improve one's standing in a social hierarchy defined by one's friends and neighbors. When bus passengers earning $20,000 annually were subjected to a subtle manipulation (in the form of answering a survey), those induced to feel that their income was below average purchased twice as many scratch-off tickets as those placed at the midpoint of an income ladder. One reason why playing the lottery holds a differential appeal for lower-income individuals (and why they buy into this dream) is implicit in the winning chances, which though small, apply equally to all players, regardless of socioeconomic status. In a second field experiment, priming subjects with considerations of opportunity in the context of employment, elections, or gambling was also sufficient to induce them to purchase a greater number of lottery tickets. — GJC

J. Behav. Dec. Making 21, 283 (2008).

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