The lottery is one of the most popular gambling games in the world. There is no doubt that it appeals to a lot of people, especially in an age of inequality and low social mobility. It dangles the promise of instant riches to people who otherwise might have trouble attaining wealth without pouring decades into one area of their lives and hoping that it pays off.
But the lottery is a game of chance and odds and those chances are very low. And it’s difficult to justify spending money on something that has such a poor payoff. And yet, I have talked to many lottery players who play regularly for years. People who spend $50, $100 a week. And they defy the expectations that you might have going into a conversation like this, which is that they are irrational and they don’t know that the odds are bad.
The purchase of lottery tickets can’t be accounted for by decision models based on expected value maximization, as the math shows that they cost more than the potential prize. But they can be accounted for by more general models of risk-seeking behavior. People buy lottery tickets to experience a thrill and indulge in the fantasy of becoming rich. Those are legitimate reasons to play, but they aren’t the only ones. People also purchase tickets for the societal benefits, which include helping those in need and encouraging civic engagement. But there is no evidence that these benefits outweigh the risks, especially when state taxes are factored in.