Why People Love to Play the Lottery

The lottery is an inherently risky form of gambling that offers the chance to win a large sum of money. People who play it are irrational, we’re told, and they don’t understand the odds of winning. Despite these odds, there are plenty of people who love playing the lottery. Some of them even buy tickets every week, spending $50 or $100 a pop. I’ve talked to a few of these people, and their stories are always interesting and surprising.

They’re a little trippy in some ways, because they clearly know that the odds are long against them. But they still play, and they keep buying those tickets, and sometimes they even have these quote-unquote systems that are completely unsupported by statistical reasoning about lucky numbers and stores and the best times of day to buy. It’s hard to believe, but it really does seem like these people think that they’re going to be the ones who are lucky enough to make a big change in their lives, and maybe even save the world.

But the real reason why lotteries are so popular is that they’re dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. And it’s a pretty powerful message that’s not so different from what the state is trying to do now with sports betting.