Why Do People Keep Playing the Lottery?

The word lottery comes from the Middle Dutch phrase lotgeijde, meaning “lot drawing” or “game of chance”. It was a popular method of raising funds for projects in colonial America, but in the modern sense, it’s a state-run game where people buy tickets for a chance to win money. State governments use the money to fund everything from roads to prisons to public schools. People spend upward of $100 billion on these tickets every year, making it the most popular form of gambling in the US. And that’s even though most people know the odds of winning are really, really low.

But why do people keep playing? The answer lies in a concept known as expected value. This is the sum of an individual’s monetary and non-monetary gains. If the sum is high enough, then the disutility of a monetary loss is outweighed by the benefit of the gain. Lottery tickets are marketed with this idea in mind.

Those in the bottom quintile of the income distribution, who spend the most on lottery tickets, don’t have much discretionary income to begin with. But they do get a lot of value out of those tickets. They provide a little hope, as irrational and mathematically impossible as it may be.

The other message that lottery marketers are relying on is that even if you lose, you’re still doing your civic duty by contributing to the state coffers, so you shouldn’t feel too guilty about it. But we’ve never seen a study showing that the percentage of state revenue that lottery games raise is even remotely comparable to other tax revenue sources.