The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Would you continue to work if you won the lottery?

What does the "lottery question" tell us about our work ethic?

Hidden Brain Puzzle and Answer: If you won the lottery and had enough money to live comfortably the rest of your life, would you continue to work? The number of American adults who answer YES to this question is (a) About a quarter of all adults (b) About half of all adults (c) About two thirds of all adults (d) About three quarters of all adults. The correct answer is C — about two thirds of Americans say they would continue to work. What is more interesting than the answer, however, is how Americans have responded to the question over time.

In 1955, researchers posed this question to a representative sample of Americans. They found that about 80 percent of Americans said they would continue to work if they won the lottery and had no financial need to work. By around 1980, the number of Americans who said they would still work was about 72 percent. Scott Highhouse, Michael J. Zickar, and Maya Yankelevich at Bowling Green State University recently completed the trend line between 1980 and 2006 and found the number of Americans who said yes continued to decline gradually until 1994, and then has leveled off around the two-thirds mark.

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Some people wonder whether the declining number reflects a decline in the famous Protestant work ethic, which celebrates hard work and self-denial. Has America moved, or is America moving, from a culture of work and industriousness to a culture of enjoyment and hedonism? Highhouse and his colleagues caution us about drawing too much from this one question and the answer, and I think they are right. This is an interesting piece of trivia, and not something that necessarily tells us anything meaningful about the American work ethic.

After reporting and writing The Hidden Brain, I am especially cautious about taking people’s answers to such questions at face-value. For one thing, the answers do not tell us what people would actually do, were they to win the lottery. We only know what they say they will do. The trouble is not only that people do not accurately tell us what is happening in their minds, but that very often, people do not know their own minds.

As the brilliant Dan Gilbert has shown us in a number of path-breaking studies, people are not very good at predicting what makes them happy. (Lottery winners may quit their jobs on the day they win — one my friends told me last night he would fax his resignation from the nearest fax machine as soon as he knew he’d won! — but may start applying for new jobs three months after they win.) Gilbert’s research, in fact, has looked at the lottery question and why it is people mistakenly believe that winning the lottery will make them deliriously happy on a permanent basis. You can watch a talk by Gilbert here.

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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