Want to save more or beat a disease? Try entering a lottery

Marc Aspinall

If you have ever bought a lottery ticket and felt a spark of hope for your future, despite rationally understanding that the odds mean you are unlikely to win the jackpot, you will have experienced firsthand the glitchy brain behaviour that in 2020 will be harnessed to solve many of the toughest problems humanity faces. Lotteries will start to be used across society to induce positive behaviour.

Lotteries work by stimulating the reward-anticipation pathways of the brain. We imagine something good happening – hitting the jackpot – and we experience a quick hit of hope, pleasure and motivation. These feelings are so powerful that we ignore the incredibly low odds. The dopamine rush drives us to take irrational action – buying a lottery ticket. Even when we lose, it feels so good to have the feeling of hope that we do it again. Statistics are no match for emotions when it comes to driving behaviour.

This phenomenon is universal. Lotteries have become the most profitable form of entertainment worldwide by a huge margin. Across the world, people collectively spend more on lottery tickets annually than they do on books, movies, music, sporting events and video games combined.

For decades, many sociologists and economists have argued that lotteries are a net negative for society, draining resources from people who can’t afford to throw money away on wishful thinking. But an alternative viewpoint has emerged recently: that the irrational hope that lotteries generate is actually a significant resource to be used as a tool for widespread social change.

In Lesotho, epidemiologists used lotteries to slow the spread of HIV by 21 per cent: winners were only eligible to receive their cash prize if they tested negative for the virus. Cardiologists at the University of Pennsylvania found that they could cut in half the number of patients regularly skipping prescribed heart medication – by offering them a 1 in 100 chance at a daily $100 prize for taking their pills on schedule.

Addiction treatment centres in the US have found that giving patients the opportunity to spin a “prize wheel” each time they test negative for opiates is the single most effective driver of sustained recovery, with the dopamine high of hoping for a big win counteracting the need for a drug-induced high. And numerous weight-loss studies have found that “regret lotteries”, in which you have to forfeit your winnings if you haven’t met your weight loss goals, lead to more long-term weight loss than traditional diet interventions.

Lotteries are not only effective for health-related behaviour change. They can be used to influence economic activity too. In Haiti, economists increased personal cash savings by more than 30 per cent in a high-poverty population with the use of lottery-linked savings accounts. In this increasingly popular banking system, every cash deposit not only counts as personal savings, but also as credit toward a lottery ticket.

And Singapore has used a lottery game to shift nearly 10 per cent of peak public transport users to off-peak hours, with the goal of making its public transport more sustainable and more attractive to its citizens.

Based on how many billions of people continue to play traditional lotteries again and again despite virtually always losing, these relatively low-cost interventions seem to have the potential for long-term, sustained impact. In 2020, we will see the widespread use of lotteries for good. Most of the time, individuals will lose. But these new games for change will be a huge collective win for society at large.

Jane McGonigal is director of game research at the Institute for the Future

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