Why do People Play the Lottery?

me_mountain.s.jpgWhy do people play the lottery? Don’t they know it’s a tax on the mathematically challenged? Oh those silly people. Oh yeah, I’m one of them.

When I play, all I’m really thinking about is the fact that the price of one ticket is almost negligible (I never buy more than one), and how happy I would be if I won. I play the Powerball, and I always choose the “Power play.” Many states have their own flavor of the game, but they all seem to have distractingly large prizes coupled with unfathomably low probabilities.

In Maine, the powerball has six independently chosen numbers. To ge the jackpot you must get them all exactly right. I’ve gotten one number right before. That’s the best I’ve ever done. The chances of getting the jackpot are: 175,223,510 to 1. Even if that jackpot goes to $100 Million, the expected value with respect to the jackpot is only .57 cents. The actual price is $3. There’s no mathematical justification for buying a lottery ticket. At least not from the player’s point of view. The state, however, receives a whole bunch of money without having to pass a single tax increase.

jonas_salk.jpgI see the same story repeated elsewhere: society reaps a benefit from the irrational acts of some of its members. We all know the name of Jonas Salk, discoverer of the first safe and effective polio vaccine. How many different methods did Salk have to try before this method was successful? How many things did other people try? Add up all the viable vaccines we have, and divide that number by all attempts ever made at vaccine discovery… Is it any harder to win the lottery? It’s certainly cheaper.

For any given individual researcher, searching for possible vaccines or antibiotics are not a profitable ventures, but we need those people — badly. Consider a dollar spent on antibiotics research. The expected value of the returns on that investment are probably well below $1. That kind of investment is irrational for any given individual. Big Pharma has already figured this out, which is why we are running out of antibiotics. However, not making that investment is irrational for society as a whole.

While I was pondering why I bought lottery tickets, I thought, “Wouldn’t such irrational inclinations have been weeded out by evolution long ago?” Not only do people still do irrational things, we are predictably irrational. We have a whole subfield of economics devoted to studying such irrationality. How has this behavior survived? Wouldn’t irrational people experience some disadvantage in this world?


No man is an island, but it took me a few moments to remember that. We humans are fiercely social creatures. Our features are not selected merely for individual fitness. Characteristics will flourish if they make a group more fit.

Where would we be as a society if we didn’t have people who were willing to spend years searching for the next vaccine or antibiotic? What would I be doing right now in the middle of the night if Edison hadn’t been willing to try 10,000 different ways to make a dependable light bulb? Where would humanity be without all those ADD explorers who led us around the world? Perhaps people don’t act irrationally. Maybe we have an irrational desire to focus on the individual instead of humanity as a whole.

Before you look down on your irrational fellow man, consider what benefit we may all be receiving from their actions.

3 Responses to “Why do People Play the Lottery?”

  1. Lee Turnpenny Reply | Permalink

    ‘The state, however, receives a whole bunch of money without having to pass a single tax increase.’

    Err, but it is. Isn’t it? Arguably.

  2. Graham Morehead Reply | Permalink

    Yes. It’s an optional tax. Much easier to pass.

  3. Mike Fowler Reply | Permalink

    Wouldn’t irrational people experience some disadvantage in this world?

    Yes, but the question of whether this is important to natural selection and/or evolution is whether this disadvantage has a measurable impact on your ability to reproduce or survive.

    Most lotteries are pretty cheap and don’t allow you to start playing until after reproductive maturity, so, like prostate cancer, it’s unlikely that this sort of irrational behaviour (or disease) is really under the sort of selection that affects its presence in individuals across generations.

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