If You’re Happy and You Know It, Buy a Lottery Ticket

The reward of the doldrums is an uptick, however temporary, in your ability to make rational decisions.  

It is well known that gambling is one of the most irrational of pastimes. In a casino, when you lay cash on the table, or feed coins into a slot machine, you are agreeing to be had. Yes, people win individual bets and the slots dispense winnings and even jackpots from time to time. A casino where no one ever won a dime would not long survive. But in the not-so-long-run, as the adage goes, the house always wins. Suemedha Sood provided the details a few years at the BBC:

In all casinos, the games have a built-in “house edge”, the profit taken from each bet. Although it varies from place to place, lottery-type games such as keno or slots typically have the worst odds, with the house advantage getting up to around 35%. Players’ odds are better in card and dice games; for instance, blackjack only has a house advantage of around 1% to 2% for skilled players and a house advantage of up to around 20% for unskilled players, while craps has a house advantage as low as less than one percent for skilled players and up to around 16% for unskilled players. Casinos don’t typically disclose odds, but frequent blackjack players have reported facing better odds in Belgium, while in the Dominican Republic, keno reportedly has even worse odds than other parts of the world.

At the end of the day, the house always wins because casinos are businesses. They have to turn a profit to stay alive. While the ecosystem of a casino serves the end goal of taking gamblers’ money, players can come out on top by quitting while they’re ahead. That, of course, is easier said than done.

The worst gamble of all is playing the lottery. The gigantic Powerball jackpot in January was tempting enough to separate me from a $10 bill in my walletthe first time I ever bought a lotto ticket. But the odds of winning the top Powerball prize on any given week, as Nick Stockton reports, is 1 in 292 million. Those chances aren’t good. In fact, they are “barely better odds than having your name randomly pulled from a hat filled with the names of everyone in the United States.” Still, people continue to play Powerball, a game in which you get to predict which five white balls numbered from 1 to 69 and which yellow “powerball” from 1 to 26 will pop out from the machine. Yet the all-but-insurmountable odds do not seem to put very many people off.  

A new study in the journal Psychological Science helps to account for the strange irrationality of gambling. (The full text of the article is available here.) People who are enjoying a certain kind of a “positive mood,” the three authors report, seem to be under the influence of “unrealistic optimism” and spring for lottery tickets with more enthusiasm. How do they know this? Rather than recruit volunteers for a simulated risk-taking experience in a laboratory, A. Ross Otto, Stephen M. Fleming and Paul W. Glimcher consulted a trove of data showing trends in lottery gambling in New York City from 2011 and 2012. The researchers looked at 24 months of day-to-day lottery-ticket purchases in 174 Big Apple neighborhoods and searched for variables that seemed to correlate to increased sales in given days.

Here is what they found. People gamble more when local sports teams score an unexpected win and when the weather is especially sunny following a “streak of cloudy days.” The findings were remarkably consistent across the city: rich and poor, white-collar and blue-collar, uptown and downtown, Manhattanites and outer-borough residents seemed buoyed by fair weather and sporting success and opened their wallets for lottery tickets as a result. The effect wasn’t subtle. “[O]n a  day  in  which  multiple sports teams unexpectedly win,” the authors write, “approximately $160,000 more is spent on lottery gambling relative to an average day.”

The upshot? “Taken  together,  our  results  reveal  a remarkable  malleability  to  human  risk taking.” There’s a silver lining lurking here. While huddled inside on a cold, dank day, or while nursing your favorite team’s tough loss, you can take some comfort in the thought that your foul mood is giving you a dose of reality that will make you less likely to waste money on Powerball. The reward of the doldrums is an uptick, however temporary, in your ability to make rational decisions.  


Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.

Image credit: shutterstock.com

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie


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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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