Irrational Lottery Players


The lottery has long been a popular method of raising funds for public uses, from paving streets to building churches. And although it’s a form of gambling, some people use it in an irrational way: they buy thousands of tickets at a time and develop quote-unquote “systems” for picking winning numbers. They think about where to play and when, about whether their lucky store has the right kind of ticket and whether it’s a good day to go to the bank for cash, and they end up with the kind of hope that leads to irrational behavior.

There are a number of reasons why this happens, and many of them are related to the way that lottery operations work. In general, state lotteries are established through legislation that creates a monopoly for the state; establishes a government agency or corporation to run the operation (rather than licensing a private firm in exchange for a cut of the proceeds); begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, because revenues inevitably grow flat or even decline over time, tries to stimulate growth by constantly expanding into new types of games.

This constant expansion is a classic example of how public policy is made piecemeal, with little or no overall view. It’s also a typical pattern in the evolution of lotteries, and it contributes to the kinds of problems that critics point out about them, such as their regressive impact on lower-income residents and their propensity for addictive behaviors.

Another reason why it’s problematic is that, as the number of lottery games has grown, people’s expectations have risen along with them. They expect the jackpots to be big, and they expect to see them on the news. And when the prizes do grow to apparently newsworthy levels, the sales of tickets spike.

The result of this is that state lotteries have become highly dependent on a very small percentage of their players. As the Huffington Post reports, “Super users,” who play thousands of tickets at a time, make up 70 to 80 percent of revenue for some states. And for these folks, there’s a problem: Those improbable chances of winning are the only ones they have.

These players are often irrational, but they do have something in common: a belief that the lottery is their only shot at a better life. And if they can’t win, then it really is their fault. They could have done more to prepare themselves, like taking a job and budgeting their money. Or they could have just stayed home and read a book.

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