Cohen in NY Times: Lottery Tickets a Disposable Consumer Purchase

As long as lottery tickets hold out the possibility of fulfilling a fantasy, that possibility will reinforce people's resolve to purchase tickets despite the odds of actually winning, Professor Lloyd Cohen tells The New York Times, pointing out that the purchase represents a "disposable consumer purchase" rather than an investment.

Cohen's comments came in an article in which addiction researchers and economists were asked to explain the behavior of those who play the lottery. The article comes on the heels of a recent Mega Millions lottery jackpot of $390 million that sent record numbers of ticket buyers to lottery sales outlets in hope of being the lucky winner.

Lotto Makes Sense, Even for Losers, The New York Times, March 11, 2007. By Benedict Carey.

'''The people who denigrate lottery players are like 10-year-olds who are disgusted by the idea of sex: they are numb to its pleasures, so they say it's not rational,' said Lloyd Cohen, a professor of law at George Mason University and author of an economic analysis, 'Lotteries, Liberty and Legislatures,' who is himself a gambler and a card counter.

"Dr. Cohen argues that lottery tickets are not an investment but a disposable consumer purchase, which changes the equation radically. Like a throwaway lifestyle magazine, lottery tickets engage transforming fantasies: a wine cellar, a pool, a vision of tropical blues and white sand. The difference is that the ticket can deliver.

"And as long as the fantasy is possible, even a negligible probability of winning becomes paradoxically reinforcing, Dr. Cohen said. 'One is willing to pay hard cash that it be so real, so objective, that it is actually calculable -- by someone, even if not oneself,' he said.

"The mundane simplicity of the lottery only reinforces the attraction. Casino card tables can be intimidating, an opaque world of rules and hard-to-master strategies; ditto for the track.

"Because it is pure luck, the lottery is easy to grasp and allows for plenty of perfectly loopy -- and very enjoyable -- number superstitions. Your birthday digits never won you a dime? Try your marriage date; your favorite psalm verse; the day your bullying father-in-law died. Or, perhaps, reverse the order. In studies, psychologists have found that ticket holders are very reluctant to trade their tickets for others, precisely because they have an illusion of control from having picked magical numbers.

"This sense of power infuses the waiting period with purpose. And the hope of a huge payoff, however remote, is itself a source of pleasure. In brain-imaging studies of drug users, as well as healthy adults placing bets, neuroscientists have found that the prospect of a reward activates the same circuits in the brain that the payoffs themselves do.

'''It's not just winning the money but anticipating winning the money that is exciting, and the two experiences are similar neurobiologically,' said Christine Reilly, executive director of the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders, in Medford, Mass.

"People who gorge on lotto tickets, buying 100 at a time even after years of luckless playing, are no less rational than anyone else making big bets. And lottery odds are neutral and fair, after all, not biased toward any social elite. Seeing a Georgia truck driver win proves that in players' minds."

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