Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Becoming a Winner but Staying the Same: Identities and Consumption of Lottery Winners

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Becoming a Winner but Staying the Same: Identities and Consumption of Lottery Winners

Article excerpt


We have all heard fantasies about what people would do if they won a large sum of money. Such fantasies articulate the potential of monetary windfalls to realize wants and desires--of becoming someone else somewhere else. Such dreams are fueled by the increased advertising that has followed the legalization and increasing state interest in lotteries in the Western world in recent decades (Cosgrave and Klassen 2001). Paradoxically there also exists a traditional myth of the unfortunate winner, a winner overwhelmed by the win, who becomes a spendthrift and is struck by misery (Binde 2008).

Major winnings may be seen as experiments in liquid or postmodern life; a randomly distributed increase in life chances, giving the winner an opportunity of substantiating theories conceptualizing life in contemporary consumer (and makeover) culture as loosely tied and in a state of permanent transformation (e.g., Featherstone 1991: 83; cf. Campbell 2004: 29f.; McGee 2005). Bauman states, for example:

... the degree of genuine or putative consumer freedom to select one's identity and to hold to it as long as desired, that becomes the royal road to the fulfilment of identity fantasies. Having the ability, one is free to make and unmake identities at will. Or so it seems. (Bauman 2000: 83)

Previous research, however, shows that in reality winners are generally quite cautious compared with the dreams and myths. With a few exceptions, their lives do not change greatly. Not only is this due to the prosaic character of everyday reality, lottery winners actively avoid the mythical misfortune by keeping the dreams at arm's length. By being cautious rather than extravagant, they "tame" their otherwise dangerously "wild" winnings. Thereby, they manage to keep their social identity and relations intact, despite the possibility of transformation through exaggerated consumption. This is an argument put forward by Falk and Maenpaa (1999: 41ff.), but since their study of Finnish lottery winners included only 24 individuals, its generalizability may be limited. There is research pointing in the same direction from the United States and Norway, but the issue is not specifically elaborated in these studies (Eckblad and vonder Lippe 1994; Kaplan 1987). Thus, there is reason to address directly the questions of how and why lottery winners tame their winnings.

The aim of this article is to analyze whether previous indications that winners are cautious can be verified by a survey of 420 Swedish lottery winners, and to develop theoretical explanations that account for such behavior. In the empirical part of the article, I will first account for indications of attempts by winners to tame winnings by making few changes to their lives. Thereafter, I will approach the problem in a more indirect way by comparing winners of large lump sums with winners who receive monthly installments over 10-25 years. The analysis shows that lump sum winnings produce a stronger urge to tame the winnings, compared with the already "domesticated" monthly instalments.

Dreams, Myths, and the Reality of Winning

Fantasies of large lottery winnings are frequent in our consumer culture, but they have not been widely researched. I have found two exceptions. The first is a study of 175 letters sent to a Finnish newspaper describing such fantasies (Falk and Maenpaa 1999: 17ff.). The analysis presents both earthbound dreams that may be capable of realization, and pure fantasy. Two themes are recurrent. Firstly, that the dream takes place somewhere else. The wish to get away, to experience adventures, or settle on a paradise-like exotic island was recurrent and more prominent than the practical possibility closer at hand, to build an idyll within one's existing frame of life. Secondly, the fantasies expressed a desire to become someone else, someone more talented, powerful, or of higher standing, such as a pop star, a millionaire, or an idol. …

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