Thursday, September 23, 2004

Winning the lottery

This may be an apocryphal story, but one of my friends claims he knows a guy from college who won the lottery in Pennsylvania several years ago, and will receive a thousand dollars a month for life, or something like that, on top of some huge lump sum he received when he won. By my friend's account, winning the lottery ruined his life. Rather than finish school, he dropped out, and he remains in the tiny apartment in central PA that he lived in when he won, doing little more than smoking really high-grade weed and playing the latest-generation video games.

This story seems to confirm something social researchers claim about self-determination. People seem to enjoy the effort of exerting their will and affecting the world much more than the actual specific consequences of that effort. In his magesterial The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, Robert Lane cites this finding of Martin Seligman's: "When rats and pigeons are given a choice between getting free food and getting the same food for making responses, they choose to work. Infants smile at a mobile whose movements are contingent on their responses but not at a non-contingent mobile." Instrumental operations, then, would seem to be pleasing for their own sake, not necessarily for the rewards, which turns the fundamental principle of classical economics -- work is a disutility compensated by utility in wages -- upside down. In fact we want so strongly to justify our rewards, to feel that we have determined them through our own efforts, that we believe the classical paradigm even though it doesn't exactly hold. And it utterly decimates the phony tenet that income leads to greater life satisfaction, that money is an all-purpose good. As Lane explains, "The belief that one is effective is more closely associated with happiness than anything else, especially level of income, to which so much attention is paid in the American market society"

Winning the lottery, earning a massive reward for doing absolutely nothing, destroys one's ability to believe that there is a correlation between one's material state and one's own effort. You can no longer live the noble lie of autonomy. As a consequence, all effort is invalidated, and all will short-circuited. Without the illusion of control, there's no point leaving the house. May as well play video games, where the illusion of control is restored.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Lane's analysis, as you have characterized it, appears rather compelling. I hasten to add that there is a rather cruel irony in the friend-of-a-friend lottery story, namely, that this individual, for the rest of his life will be paid out of the interest earned on the money of disappointed lottery players, all of whom dream of achieving the same status.