Why Do People Play the Lottery?


The lottery is a game in which a person pays a small amount of money for a chance to win a much larger sum. Various governments use lotteries to raise funds for a variety of projects, from school buildings to military conscription to public works such as bridges and roads. People are also attracted to lotteries because they provide the possibility of instant wealth without having to work or save for it. Lottery advertisements frequently emphasize the size of the prizes, and a large share of the proceeds are often donated to charity.

Some people play the lottery because they enjoy gambling. They think that a small risk of losing a trifling amount can be outweighed by the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits they gain from playing the lottery. For such individuals, the cost of purchasing a ticket is a reasonable expense, and they are not acting irrationally.

But most of the people who play the lottery do not buy tickets for entertainment purposes. They have what economists call a “utility maximization” motive, which is to maximize the expected value of their winnings. This means that they will purchase more tickets when the jackpot is high, and they will sell them when the prize is low. The result is that most players do not maximize their expected utility, and the average player is worse off than if they had simply paid cash for their tickets.

Other motives for playing the lottery are that it is a good way to support a particular cause, and because the proceeds are viewed as being a “painless” source of revenue (that is, people are voluntarily spending their money rather than having it taken from them by government coercion). It should be noted that these arguments do not hold up to close scrutiny, however, as studies have shown that state governments’ objective fiscal health does not seem to have any bearing on whether or when they adopt a lottery.