The Lottery

I traditionally only “play” the lottery by buying a few dollars worth of tickets when the Powerball or MegaMillions exceeds $200 million or so. At that point, I’m not really playing because odds are good, but because it’s worth a few bucks to be able to dream about having hundreds of millions of dollars for a day or two until I lose.

I read an interesting theory about poor people and why they play the lottery so much more than rich people. It’s not necessarily intelligence or understanding of statistics, but that they think it’s worth a couple dollars to be able to dream about being rich. People who live comfortably really don’t see the value in giving up their money to dream that they have lots of money.

The other day, a couple coworkers each invested $2 in scratch tickets. Both ended up a few dollars ahead, so I thought it’d be fun to give it a whirl too. My $2 investment turned into $3. Since it was an inconsequentially small winning, I decided to reinvest the full amount today. One of the tickets was a $2 ticket, and it had a $10,000 prize; you could scratch 8 numbers and potentially win the $10,000 on each, I believe, so the advertised maximum jackpot was $80,000 or something like that.

I ended up winning $0, leaving me, ultimately, $2 in the hole. But what began to fascinate me was the psychology. The high-stakes $2 ticket netted nothing, but two of the numbers I didn’t match had a $10,000 prize: had I gotten a 9 instead of a 4, I would have earned $20,000.

We were discussing our newfound vice over lunch, and began to speculate that the $10,000 prize on a non-winning number might be deliberate. I didn’t really get the, “Wow, I lost 100% on that ticket!’ vibe, as much as, “Dude, I nearly won $20,000!” vibe.

I went back to the convenience store for a snack later, and decided to get another one of the $2 tickets. Half of it was that the irrational side of me said, “You almost won $20,000 last time, so you’ll probably clinch it this time!” The other half of me was the cynical side that bought the ticket to prove that the $10,000 non-winning-number was a deliberate psychological ploy. (And a little bit of it was that I was already there buying food, and had a lot of 1’s.)

Indeed, that ticket, too, had two $10,000 prizes on numbers I didn’t match, and I, again, didn’t win anything.

What I find so interesting is the psychology. I’m reasonably certain that the fact that I “almost” won $20,000 both times is deliberate. I also know that they’ve got to pay out more than they take in, so I know that my odds of winning $10,000 are really slim, probably something like 1 in 25,000 at best. (The odds aren’t on the ticket, but the thing informs me that I can request to see a sheet at the counter.)

And yet, knowing full well that I’m being fleeced, some tiny part of me says, “Third time’s the charm! How can you not spend $2 to try again? A few more times and you’ll have it!” And this, I think, is why the lottery does so well. Even the people who understand that the deck is (heavily) stacked against them have a little bit of irrationality encouraging them to do it again. I’ve gotten myself a whopping $4 in the hole, but I see regulars at the convenience store who spend $20 or more every time I see them, which means they probably do it every day. And I’m pretty sure that they think that, if they keep digging, they’re going to hit the jackpot any time now.