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$300,000 Study to Yield Wealth of Data on the Rich : Psychology: Researchers will examine lottery winners to see how lots of money can change attitudes, health--and happiness.


FULLERTON — Wealth. Power. Everything from diamond tie tacks to indoor Jacuzzis and 40-foot yachts.

They easily could be yours if you hit the jackpot in the California lottery, but will they make you happy? That, among other things, is what a pair of Orange County university professors and two colleagues want to know.

Profs. Michael Birnbaum of Cal State Fullerton, R. Duncan Luce of UC Irvine, Ward Edwards of USC and Barbara Mellers of UC Berkeley are conducting a study into how sudden riches change a person's attitude, health, happiness and spending habits.

Birnbaum, a psychology researcher, said the study also will probe how wealth affects the way people make decisions.

The National Science Foundation, a research agency funded by the federal government, thought enough of the idea by the professors to give Cal State Fullerton and USC two grants totaling nearly $300,000 for the project.

The grants were awarded Sept. 1, and will fund the project until 1997. Researchers plan to seek other grants and support to continue the project.

"Everybody talks about what happens to people and how they spend their money" after they win the lottery, Birnbaum said, "but we don't have much research."

The professors plan to interview about 200 winners of prizes over $100,000 and another 200 winners of smaller prizes through the televised Big Spin, Birnbaum said. Californians get to the Big Spin after their names are drawn from a collection of qualifying lottery scratcher cards.

Big Spin winners can take home $25,000 to $2 million, depending on the spin of a wheel.

Since 1986, good fortune has turned 1,021 Californians into millionaires through Super Lotto and the Big Spin, said Bob Taylor, spokesman for the California Lottery. No one has worked with the state lottery to study its winners before, he said.

One nationwide study by a Florida Institute of Technology professor in 1985 concluded that most lottery winners keep working after they hit the jackpot. Researchers in the California study will inquire whether new winners intend to quit their jobs or take big vacations, then keep track of them to see whether they follow their plans.

Birnbaum also is interested in how human judgment and decision-making follow mathematical trends based on wealth. The four researchers are all scholars of decision-making processes; Luce said he is primarily a consultant on the project.

According to standard theories on the topic, Birnbaum said, the more money people have, the more "risk-neutral" they become; the less money people have, the more they shy away from taking risks.

People who are risk-neutral, for example, are willing to pay 50 cents for the chance to play a coin flip game in which they would win $1 if the coin landed heads up, or win nothing if the coin landed on tails. People who shy away from risks would not be willing pay 50 cents for the opportunity to play the same game of chance.

Birnbaum and his colleagues want to find out if the theories hold up by testing people who are recent lottery winners, both before and after they appear on the Big Spin.

Further, the researchers are curious about how big payoffs affect spending habits. Birnbaum said big winners are more likely to make changes in their work, home location, even the restaurants they patronize--which could lead to the stress of adapting to a new way of life.

"We'll ask people how often they went out to eat before they won, and then how much they went out to eat afterward," Birnbaum said. "The research is inherently interesting, so we expect we'll have some new ideas and questions to ask that occur to us as we go along."

And for the ultimate question: Can money buy happiness?

"It's an interesting question," Birnbaum said. "I don't know."

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