The Benefits of Playing the Lottery


The word lottery is most commonly associated with games of chance that offer large prizes to a random group of people. Lotteries have been used for centuries for all sorts of reasons, from distributing land to the Old Testament Israelites to giving away slaves in the Roman Empire to awarding college admission to students in the United States.

It seems like every week we hear about another mega-million-dollar lottery winner. But the truth is that winning a lottery jackpot doesn’t make you special — it just means your odds of winning are much lower than other people’s.

Even so, many people buy lottery tickets. Why? The answer lies in the fact that the expected utility of a monetary gain is outweighed by a desire for entertainment and other non-monetary benefits. This is why decision models based on expected value maximization cannot account for lottery purchase behavior. But more general models based on utilities defined on things other than lottery outcomes can.

In the United States, the majority of players are low-income, less educated, and nonwhite. And while lottery play may provide some with a sense of euphoria and the belief that they are making their way out of poverty, research suggests that it does not translate to a long-term increase in income.