Eyes on the Prize

What is the effect of winning large jackpots on human behaviour?

Posted Oct 23, 2014

As I have noted in some of my previous blogs, structural characteristics in gambling are typically those features of a game that are responsible for reinforcement, may satisfy gamblers' needs and may (for some ‘vulnerable’ players) facilitate excessive gambling. Such features include the event frequency of the game, jackpot size, stake size, the probability of winning, and the use of ‘near misses’ and other ‘illusion of control’ elements. By identifying particular structural characteristics it is possible for researchers (and the gaming industry) to see how needs are identified, to see how information about gambling is perceived, and to see how thoughts about gambling are influenced.

Showing the existence of such relationships has great practical importance as potentially ‘risky’ forms of gambling can be identified. Furthermore, by identifying particular structural characteristics it may be possible to understand more about gambling motivations and behaviour, which can have useful clinical, academic and commercial implications. It has been widely accepted that structural characteristics have a role in the acquisition, development, and maintenance of gambling behaviour. However, it would appear that the role of structural characteristics has become even more significant within the past decade and has led to increased empirical research on structural gaming features.

Thankfully, this change only lasts for a short period of time. For instance, if someone is a generally happy person and a close relative dies, research shows that after a few months or so, the person will go back to the same happiness level that they were previously. However, this works the other way too. If a person is not very happy in their day-to-day life, they could win a large amount of money gambling and they would probably be happy for a couple months but then they would ‘level out’ and go back to life at their normal unhappiness level.

One of the infamous questions in social science is whether money makes people happy. In 2001, Dr. Jonathan Gardner and Dr. Andrew Oswald carried out a longitudinal study on the psychological health and reported happiness of approximately 9,000 randomly chosen people. Their research reported that those who received financial windfalls (i.e., by large gambling wins or receiving an inheritance) had higher mental wellbeing in the following year. In another longitudinal data study on a random sample of Britons who received medium-sized lottery wins of between £1000 and £120,000, the same authors compared lottery winners with two control groups (one with no gambling wins and the other with small gambling wins). They reported that big lottery winners went on to exhibit significantly better psychological health. Two years after a lottery win there was an improvement in mental wellbeing using the General Health Questionnaire. Other data (published in 2009) have also been analysed by Dr. Benedict Apouey and Dr. Andrew Clark who also found increased health benefits among lottery winners when compared to non-lottery winners. However, they also showed that lottery winners also drank and smoked more socially than non-lottery winners. Similar findings that lottery winners have better health indicators have also been reported by other researchers (such as Dr. Mikael Lindahl in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Human Resources).

On a more practical day-to-day level, most of the research on big winners has shown that their lives are much better as a result of their life changing wins but there are always a few winners who find other problems occur as a result of their instant wealth. They may give up their jobs and move to a more luxurious house in another area. This can lead to a loss of close friends from both the local neighbourhood and from their workplace. There can also be family tensions and arguments over the money and there is always the chance that winners will be bombarded with requests for money from every kind of cause or charity. There are also case reports in the literature of people become depressed after winning life-changing amounts of money (such as a 2002 study by Dr. S. Nissle and Dr. T. Bschor in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice), although these are presumably the exception as no researcher(s) would get case reports published showing people were happier after winning a large amount of money! However, despite potential problems, most of the psychological research (perhaps unsurprisingly) indicates that winners are glad they won.

There are also those groups of people who will view the acquisition of instant wealth as ‘undeserved’. Basically, when people win large amounts of money through gambling, other people around treat them differently even if the winners do not move neighbourhood or carry on in their job. This can lead to envy and resentment not just from people who know the winners but also from those in the locality of where the winners may move to. However, most gaming operators have an experienced team of people to help winners adjust to their new life and to minimize potential problems.

Research into the effects of high jackpots on human behaviour has been relatively sparse. The research that has been carried out suggests that huge jackpot winners do not suffer negatively as a result of winning. There is little research that indicates that high jackpot cause people to develop problems unless the large jackpot is combined with other structural features such as high event frequencies.

References and further reading

Apouey, B. & Clark, A.E. (2009). Winning Big but Feeling no Better? The Effect of Lottery Prizes on Physical and Mental Health. Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei Working Papers (Paper 357). Berkeley Electronic Press. 

Arvey, R.D., Harpaz, I. & Liao, H. (2004). Work centrality and post-award work behavior of lottery winners. Journal of Psychology, 138, 404-420.

Brickman, P., Coates, D. & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927.

Eckblad, G.F. & von der Lippe, A.L. (1994). Norwegian lottery winners: Cautious realists. Journal of Gambling Studies, 10, 305-322.

Gardner, J. & Oswald, A.J. (2001). Does money buy happiness? A longitudinal study using data on windfalls. Warwick University Mimeograph.

Gardner, J. & Oswald, A.J. (2007). Money and mental well-being: A longitudinal study of medium-sized lottery wins. Journal of Health Economics, 26, 49-60.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). The lottery of life after a jackpot win. Western Mail, November 11, p.16. 

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The effect of winning large jackpots on human behaviour. Casino and Gaming International, 6(4), 77-80. 

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

Imbens, G. W., Rubin, D. B., & Sacerdote, B. I. (2001). Estimating the effect of unearned income on labor earnings, savings, and consumption: Evidence from a survey of lottery players. American Economic Review, 91, 778-794.

Kaplan, H. R. (1985). Lottery winners and work commitment: A behavioral test of the American work ethic. Journal of the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies, 10, 82-94

Kaplan, H.R. (1987). Lottery winners: The myth and reality. Journal of Gambling Studies, 3, 168-178.

Lindahl, M. (2005). Estimating the effect of income on health and mortality using lottery prizes as an exogenous source of variation in income. Journal of Human Resources, 40, 144-168.

Nissle, S. & Bschor, T. (2002). Winning the jackpot and depression: Money cannot buy happiness. International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, 6, 181-186.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies (pp.211-243). New York: Elsevier.