Why Do People Play the Lottery?

Why Do People Play the Lottery?

The lottery—where people pay for a ticket, select numbers, or have machines randomly spit them out, and win prizes if their group of numbers match those that get drawn by a machine—seems like something born out of the same culture that birthed Instagram and the Kardashians. But lotteries are actually old and venerable, with roots in American history that go back centuries. It’s no surprise that Americans spend over $80 billion on them every year.

But why? The answer is twofold: entertainment and, for some, a sliver of hope. The first part of the explanation is simple: most people don’t really want to lose. That’s why they buy tickets, even if they know the odds of winning are long.

A smaller percentage of ticket buyers have a more complex motivation. They’re looking for the opportunity to change their lives in a big way. This is why you see so many billboards on the highway offering a huge jackpot for Powerball or Mega Millions. The hope that the money will allow them to buy a new house, send their children to college, or get out of debt are all compelling reasons to play.

And then there are those who play with a clear understanding of how the odds work and how to maximize their chances of winning. These players usually pick numbers that correspond to significant dates, such as birthdays or anniversaries. But according to Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman, this type of strategy won’t improve their odds because other people are doing the same thing and splitting the prize.