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Can A $1M Vaccine Lottery Affect Human Behavior?

Ohio Vax-A-Million
Ohio Department of Health

Gov. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) is banking on the million-dollar lottery to ramp up the number of people who get vaccinated in Ohio. But will a lottery incentivize people who are on the fence about the COVID-19 vaccine? Experts in the field of economics and psychology sound off on how lotteries impact social behavior. 


The announcement of a $1 million lottery in Ohio sparked national and worldwide buzz and the state is hoping the allure of a $1M prize is enough to get unvaccinated Ohioans to go out and get the COVID-19 shot.  

Jay Corrigan, a professor of economics at Kenyon College, ran a study on how much money a student would want to get paid in order to get the flu shot last year, what they found is that cash incentives can work. 

"So these were not the students who were most eager to get vaccinated. Still, we found that 95% of them would get the shot in exchange for $100 or less, and that three-quarters would get the shot in exchange for $10 or less. So that tells us that cash incentives, even relatively modest ones, can have a big impact on vaccination rates," Corrigan says. 

But Ohio isn't handing out money, it's running a lottery sweepstakes. And that can make a difference, according to Kevin Bennett, professor of psychology at the Penn State University Beaver Campus.

Bennett has studied the social science and human behavior behind lotteries and found there's a certain appeal that draws people into playing a game with the odds stacked against them. 

"We're attracted to them because we tend to overestimate small percentages. Therefore, we like the idea of a small chance at winning a very large number, a million dollars or more. We actually prefer that over a small reward that is just guaranteed. So there's something about taking that risk and there's this illusion of control that some people have playing the lottery," says Bennett. 

Since DeWine announced the "Ohio Vax-A-Million" sweepstakes, there has been a notable bump in the state's vaccination rate. However, that increase can also reflect the state broadening eligibility for ages 12-15. 

Eileen Anderson-Fye is an associate professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, who studies the ethics and decision making behind public health scenarios.  

She says encouraging behavior that can benefit population health is a constant battle because people can fall into several different categories for why they will or will not get vaccinated.  

That's why, according to Anderson-Fye, it's important for officials to come up with a variety of ways to encourage people to get the vaccine.  

"So from a public health perspective, if we want to get a population vaccinated, we need to use kind of every single tool in the arsenal to do it. So money and the chance of gaining some money or in the case of younger Ohioans, education, paid education," says Anderson-Fye. "It makes sense to bring that to the table. And we know from the regular lottery and from lots of other types of information that people love that kind of intermittent reward where we might just win. You know, probably we won't. But it might be me. Why not me?"

Along with the fantasy of winning a million dollars, Anderson-Fye says there's an added social element where people talk about the lottery and might want to get in on it because their friends and family are already taking part. 

There was agreement among the psychology and human behavior experts that the lottery does have the potential to drive up numbers among certain people who were not already swayed by public service announcements or other accessibility programs. 

"I would love to think that this is going to take a lot of people who were on the fence who perhaps weren't hardcore vaccine skeptics but just hadn't gotten around to get vaccinated yet. And this is going to give them the motivation that they need to actually go out and get vaccinated," Corrigan says.  

However, there are other studies that suggest attaching a monetary value for a health benefit like a vaccine can have a long term consequence of undermining the importance of that benefit.

The state will hand out a total of $5 million after five weekly drawings, in addition to five full-ride college scholarships. The Ohio Department of Health has already spent $23 million on vaccine administration costs, with $10.5 million of that going towards public outreach and education. 

That money comes from federal coronavirus relief funds, already appropriated to the health department by a panel of legislators. 

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