Is it Irrational to Play the Lottery?


A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes given to those whose numbers match those randomly selected by machines: typically sponsored by a state as a means of raising funds. Often, these contests are portrayed as a civic duty or even as the only way for poor people to get ahead in life.

Lottery critics argue that the games do not improve the odds of winning, but rather divert attention from the state’s need to raise money; that they are often advertised deceptively, emphasizing the large sums of money to be won; that new games are introduced in response to the pressure to expand revenue and thus have a detrimental impact on players (by, for example, introducing higher minimum stakes); that the advertising of lottery games is at cross-purposes with the state’s larger social goals; and that, because lotteries are run as businesses seeking to maximize revenues, their advertising inevitably promotes gambling behavior and has regressive consequences for low-income people.

I’ve talked to lots of people who play the lottery, and they all go in clear-eyed about their odds – yes, they have quote-unquote “systems” that don’t bear out in statistical reasoning, but they also know that, for the big games, the odds are long. They have a kind of meritocratic belief that they’re going to win. And they’re spending $50, $100 a week on those tickets. It’s hard to take that lightly. Is it irrational to keep trying, year after year?