Psychological Dynamics in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

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“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson tells a story about a village that has a long-standing, dark tradition called “the lottery.” Shirley Jackson was born in 1916 in San Francisco to very conservative parents. Her parents, especially her mother, heavily condemned her for being eccentric and straying from conventional societal norms. From a young age, Jackson described herself as not only an outsider, but also a writer, often making social commentary about how sane people are most times condemned, labeled as mad, and how the “world is cruel and foolish and afraid of people who are different”.

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Due to her rocky upbringing, Jackson spent her adulthood rebelling against her mother and seeking emotional refuge and comfort in a very dysfunctional marriage where her husband was not faithful to her. Her conundrum of a marriage not only intensified mental issues that she was already suffering from such as anxiety and fear of people, but also gave rise to other issues which were reflected in many of her literary pieces. Later, her and her husband moved to North Bennington to start a family, but her marriage continued to deteriorate and she was shunned from the community. It was from this exclusion that she experienced from the community that she was inspired to write her infamous story “The Lottery” (Heller). This short story served not only as a social commentary piece, but also as an homage to her own personal life. Her cynical view on the world as an outsider and being shunned from her community were all important factors that contributed to her commentary about people, or in this case, the villagers and their tendency to shun people who think differently and blindly follow tradition. However, this story could be given a more modern interpretation from a more non-cynical, psycho-biological perspective by examining the hot-cold empathy gap that arises between Tessie and the villagers and how the gap contributes to the continuation of the dark tradition.

Shirley Jackson initially wrote this story to be interpreted and representative of people’s lax tendency and lack of caution in blindly following traditions. She worked to convey condemnation of the villagers for their herd-like mentality, who purposely chose to remain oblivious to the faults of the lottery thus carrying it on. Given that this tradition has been going on for so long, the villagers not only did not see the inherently dark and distorted nature of the ritual, but also enthusiastically participated in it. Even Tessie Hutchinson, who before having her family along with herself being picked in the lottery, eagerly awaited to participate. Additionally, the presence of Old Man Warner, who has been alive and present for the past 77 lotteries, further aids the continuation of the lottery because he is a symbol and embodiment of tradition. He paradoxically condemns younger people from other towns for wanting to discontinue the lottery stating that if they did not continue the tradition the world would return to a barbaric state. The long history of the lottery in conjunction with figure heads such as Old Man Warner have caused villagers to remain oblivious to the intrinsically messed up process and nature of the ritual. The villagers trapped within a safe bubble of like-minded individuals, fear of change and the possibility of straying from conventional thoughts, and being a pariah are the central motivating factors in their continuation of the lottery.

While the original meaning and message of the story is well received and conveyed by the story, it can also be looked at from many other angles. As society has greatly changed from the time when this story was originally written, the way that people interpret this story can now expand beyond the original. One way that this story can be seen differently is from a Public Health perspective given that many aspects of Health Promotion focuses on human patterns and the process of changing behaviors and mentalities. Analyzing “The Lottery” through a Health Promotion lens introduces two main concepts: the hot-cold empathy gap and the process of change. The hot-cold empathy gap explains that people often underestimate the influence of arousal in decision making thus causing people to make shallow decisions. In the cold state, an individual is prone to making decisions that are based on experiences rather than emotions thus decreasing motivational strength and any thoughts about what the hot state would be like. On the other hand, the hot state is when an individual makes and act on decisions based on the autonomic system in order to maximize short-term goals. Going hand-in-hand with the concept of the hot-cold empathy gap is the process of change. Through the story, we are introduced to two of the stages: the precontemplation stage and the action stage. In the precontemplation stage, people are in denial of the fact that there is a problem, while in the action phase, people make mindful, active efforts to change. The hot-cold empathy gap in addition to the two stages of change can both be utilized to examine the villagers’ blind compliance with the lottery and Tessie’s sudden shift from compliance to disapproval of the lottery.

In the beginning of “The Lottery,” we see all the villagers including Tessie Hutchinson in their biologically cold state and precontemplative stage of change. This renders them indifferent towards the unethical nature of the tradition. Once within the cold state, their emotional arousal was rather low and judgement was often impaired due to lack of consideration for what the hot state would be like. Many of the decisions that were made were based off previous experiences with the lottery rather than emotions. The cold state can be seen as a reflection of human’s innate desire for acceptance and comfort which ultimately leads to conformity. That being said, it can be seen that everyone within the village has adopted this mindset and perceived emotions towards the lottery. Factors such as the long-standing history of the tradition, fear of being an outsider, and the influence of people such as Old Man Warner, have essentially brainwashed the villagers to automatically adopt a passive attitude towards the lottery. Consequently, the possible idea that going against the tradition and voicing their opposition would lead to a very undesirable situation, such as automatically being chosen to be stoned to death, has been engrained into their heads.

The overall social situation of the story in addition to the imposed psychology have placed the villagers in a position where they are bound to fail. The villagers lack the capacity or self-awareness to think differently and astray from societal norms and expectations leaving them indefinitely in their precontemplative, cold state. The villagers, although they have the power to break away from the tradition, lack the cognizance to do so, subconsciously not choosing to think outside their realm of consciousness. This further reinforces the idea that it is within our human nature to be one group and not to go astray or stand out. Even when Tessie Hutchinson was speaking out about the wrongful nature of the lottery, the villagers continued to be indifferent, almost as if they were ignoring what she was saying. A true testament to how much emotional arousal the villagers lack is best displayed by Tessie’s own family, which are the people one would expect to react the most to what Tessie was saying. Instead, they remained in their cold state, unreactive to what she was saying, and even partook in the stoning of their mother and wife. The villagers’ passive view on this tradition also serves as a reflection of how the only way that we could really change is if either there is an external source or threat that will force us to change our mentality or if we truly desire to change. However, until either one of those actions have taken place personally to the villagers, they will continue to reject the idea that the lottery is corrupt and will never change due to the lack of progress in the stages of changes.

On the other hand, when Tessie Hutchinson gets picked from the lottery to be the person to be stoned, her once passive cold state quickly transitions to her hot state. Tessie’s main objective was to stay alive while also trying to oust the immoral nature of the custom. Her hot state can be seen as the autonomic system signaling her fight or flight mechanisms to kick in and rebel against the system. The sudden influx in emotional arousal removes the veil of oblivion and evokes the emergence of unpopular and unforeseen thoughts to arise. More importantly, Tessie’s transition is indicative of her underestimation of the arousal due to the fact that she believed that there was nothing wrong with the system. However, this lack of consideration was not a conscious decision, but rather was one that was automatically done. Tessie’s actions, once in her hot state, further supports that fact that human behavior is unpredictable until one is subjected to a situation that would cause emotional arousal. Furthermore, given the circumstances that Tessie was in, the way that she predicted that she would act starkly differed from the way that she actually acted, surprising not only herself, but also the other villagers.

The cold to hot transition also signals the shift from precomtemplation to action stage in the process of change. This change is important because it speaks about how change can only be brought on if one has full knowledge of what is happening in addition to having an external force to push them to change. While everyone is in their cold state and everyone has the same mentality, the villagers felt no need to change. However, for Tessie, with her being picked, it allowed for her to fully comprehend the shortcomings of the lottery and her compliance in just going along with the system because of conformity.

For “The Lottery,” the hot-cold empathy gap serves as a crucial component in the continuation of the tradition. The difference between the villagers’ constant cold state and the hot state of the chosen individual places the village in a never-ending vicious cycle that neither stops the tradition from continuing, nor allows for villagers to have the opportunity to change. Unless the entire village is subjected to an external force that will cause all of them to enter their hot state, the groupthink mentality that the villagers have will persist. Emotional arousal, including empathy, is a key component of change, however, taking into account human nature in conjunction with the structure of the village, change is out of reach.

In the end, despite Shirley Jackson’s original intentions, the villagers cannot be blamed for the continuation of the lottery. With the new advances that have been in the field of social and biological science it can safely be concluded that human nature is the one to blame. As humans, we seek comfort and are easily influenced by others. It has been proven that social influences play a large role in shaping our mentality and who we are. Whether we find this influence in our family, society, group of friends, or in this case, tradition, we are bound to conform and adopt the same mentality as others. Additionally, it is a well-known fact that change is a very difficult action to achieve. Change is not a linear model, but rather can be seen as spiral model, with a lot of time spent in our precontemplation and contemplation stage. Even when we make it past these stages, relapse has to take place several times before we fully change and can maintain the new and improved behavior. “The Lottery” is a great depiction of not only the hot-cold empathy gap and the process of change, but overall a reflection of human behavior. However, it is from stories like this one, along with people such as Public Health professionals, that cues to actions can be established so that bad human behavior does not remain static but rather healthy behaviors and actions can be carried out to make an upstanding person and society.

Work Cited

  1. Heller, Zoe. “The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 26 Oct. 2018,
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Psychological Dynamics in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery". (2022, Jun 25). Retrieved from