I talked a bit last week about lotteries, but there's one other parts of the lottery phenomenon that interests me as well.
It's common to discuss lotteries using terms like "idiot taxes" in some circles - after all, smart people know that the lottery has terrible odds, and people are normally risk-averse, so why would anyone ever take on a money-losing risk? It doesn't make any sense.
Thing is, I'm not generally a believer that millions of people do things simply because they're too dumb to know better. It happens sometimes - in particular, gambling addicts seem to have their brains wired in ways that promote profoundly self-destructive behaviours - but the millions of people who drop by the corner store weekly to buy a $2 ticket aren't usually wrecking their lives to do it. But still, that's several grand over a lifetime, for like a 1/5000 chance to ever hit it big. Why do people do that?
People like the idea of being rich, but for most people it's not something they consider attainable. Even upper-middle-class families who have the income to build up a nest egg in the millions usually don't, because the point of being rich is usually to have the ability to buy rich-people stuff, and scrimping and saving to be rich sort of defeats the purpose. They already have a career, they already know basically which path their life will take, and they know they're never going to have a real chance to be an NBA player or a rock star or whatever. Their only plausible path to the high life is the lottery. Yeah, the odds are slim, but a 35 year old nurse with two kids has a better chance of winning the lottery than of writing the next Harry Potter series.
Everyone likes to dream. The dreams differ - one person wants a Veyron, another wants to buy a private island getaway in the Caribbean, and some just want to be able to tell their boss to shove off without worrying about money. But not many people will ever get there on their own. For someone who knows they can't, but who doesn't want to abandon the dream, what choices do they have? Some will sigh and say "Oh well, maybe in another life", but others want to hold onto it. They want to think it could happen to them, and not just to someone else. And for people like that, the lottery sure looks like their only option.
The average lotto player isn't buying an expectation of winning for their $2 a week. They're buying the right to dream. They're spending the money so that they can hope in a way that feels realistic. It's not because they think it's a good deal on paper, it's because they don't expect to ever have a better chance. I'm not the sort to do that myself, but I get it, and once I started getting it, the idea of poking fun at people who play got a lot less appealing.
One final note, if anyone reading this is a lotto player themselves. You do have a better option available for getting yourself millions of dollars. Take the money you spend on lotto tickets in a year - call it $100. For a lottery like the local 6/49 we have here, this gives you just shy of four chances in a million of winning in any given year. But if you take it to your local casino, and put it all on 00 at the roulette table, you have $3600 if you win, $129,600 if you win twice, and $4,665,600 if you win three times in a row. $4.7 million sounds like a good-sized lotto win to me. Your odds there are about 18 in a million, or about five times higher than the actual lottery, and one casino trip a year is a lot less time out of your life than fifty trips to the corner store.