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Lottery winners do not want their winnings to change them

March 01, 2011

There are many notions about what happens when someone has won a big prize. We often hear about winners who have spent all their money, incurred debts and become lonely and unhappy.

But these are exceptional cases, research at the University of Gothenburg shows. In the vast majority of cases the winners claim to carry on living their normal lives with prudent consumption.

"It's common for people to say that 'they are who they are' as an explanation for why they do not change more," says Anna Hedenus, who has studied Swedish lottery winners in her thesis.

The story of the unfortunate winner who has given up his or her job and squandered all the money reflects both ideas about people's inordinate desire to consume and the thought that work is something we do purely because we have to. These notions are put to the test by studying how people who receive a sudden financial boost choose to use their money.

In a survey to which 420 Swedish lottery winners responded and in interviews with 14 winners, Hedenus has asked questions about the winners' attitudes to work and leisure before and after the win, and about consumption and identity. The choices the lottery winners make contribute to an understanding of how people value these different facets of life.

"Some people emphasise that two million Swedish kronor is not really that much money, and that it is not enough to cover for one's living expenses for a longer period of time. But at the same time there is a setting of priorities in that assertion. Most of them prefer to save the money as security for the future rather than dramatically changing their lives during a shorter period," says Hedenus.

The thesis focuses in particular on the winners' attitude to work after the win. The results show that only a minority of the winners have used their prize money to devote less time to work. The size of the prize is however significant in this respect. The higher the wins, the more people have, worked shorter hours or taken periods of leave. Continuing to work in the same way as before the win can be accounted for with the winners' need for social contact, structuring of time and everyday routines, or to the fact that they feel satisfied with their jobs and that work is part of their identities. The study also confirms the picture of a societal standard governing work, where the choice of continuing to work is regarded as natural.

With regard to consumption, the winners are walking a tightrope. On the one hand they aim to fulfil the expectations of being active consumers in a consumer society. On the other hand they are coloured by the ideal of thrift and by worries about spending their money on the "wrong" things or about their money running out. Nor do they want to use their money in such a way that it affects their social lives or makes it appear as though they themselves have changed. The winners' previous lifestyles and social environment therefore become important factors in deciding how they live their lives after their win.

Despite their cautious spending behaviours, the winners experience many positive consequences from their wins. In addition to experiencing happiness and gratitude, the money gives them an increased sense of security, freedom and independence.

University of Gothenburg

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