Why Do People Keep Buying Lottery Tickets?


Lottery is a form of gambling where people pay to enter a drawing for a prize, and the prizes are usually money or merchandise. Some states have state-run lotteries, while others contract them out to private organizations or even individuals. People buy tickets, then the numbers are drawn and winners are announced. It is important to understand the odds of winning in order to make a sensible decision about lottery play.

Despite the obvious risks, lotteries are extremely popular. They raise billions of dollars for state coffers every year. In the US, they account for about one-third of all state revenue. People buy lottery tickets because they enjoy the thrill of a possible big win, and there is also an element of social bonding in sharing the risk with others. But, as a behavioral economist who studies gambling, I’m always curious about the motivations of lottery players, and why it is that so many of them keep buying those tickets even though the chances of winning are incredibly slim.

It turns out that there are several irrational factors at work here. For one, people may feel that it’s their civic duty to support the state. This is a message that lottery advertising relies on heavily, and it has been very effective in the past. But it is not consistent with what we know about how states spend their revenues. Lottery popularity tends to increase when a state faces budgetary stress, but it does not seem to have much connection to the actual fiscal condition of the state.

Another reason that people buy tickets is that they view the money as a “painless tax.” This argument has been very successful, and it has helped lottery programs to win broad public approval in all states. But, as the studies of Clotfelter and Cook show, it is not consistent with the reality of state government finances. Lottery proceeds are not actually a painless way to raise revenue, and they often end up being a substitute for needed spending.

In addition to the monetary value, people purchase lottery tickets because they like to watch the action. Many people also enjoy the voyeuristic aspect of watching other people participate in a lottery and see how they do. These people may have quote-unquote systems for selecting their numbers, and they may talk about their favorite stores or times to buy tickets. But, most of these people are aware that the odds are long, and they still participate.

Of course, a final reason that people buy tickets is that they believe that it’s good for society. In fact, this is the main argument that lottery advocates use to justify their activities. They argue that lotteries benefit the state by raising funds for a certain type of public good, such as education. But, as I’ve argued previously, the benefits of lotteries are not as great as they are often claimed to be. The fact is, that most of the money raised by state lotteries goes to support general state operations rather than a particular public good.