To some, playing the lottery is a waste of both time and money, with the chances of winning being so miniscule. For others, however, the lottery holds a tempting possibility of becoming instantly wealthy with little to no work involved. It is more than money, though; it offers a chance to live your dreams. If you win the lottery, you could see the world, go on a permanent vacation, start the business you’ve always dreamed of; the possibilities are endless. When playing the lottery, there is no logic or reason. There is only the allure of your hopes and dreams being a couple of bucks away. Rebecca Paul Hargrove, president of the Tennessee Education State Lottery Corporation, says:
“If you made a logical investment choice, you’d play a different game. It’s not an investment. It’s entertainment. For a very small amount of money, you might change your life. For $4 you can spend the day dreaming about what you would do with half a billion dollars” (Piore 2014).
Still, some feel that playing the lottery is not a wise financial decision. The odds of winning are so low and the taxes for people who do win are so high that many do not see the appeal. We all know the odds of winning, so why do most of us keep playing? This sample sociology essay written by an Ultius professional writer explores the issues surrounding the lottery.
Who plays the lottery?
Large numbers of American citizens play the lottery every year. During 2012, lottery sales in the United States reached almost eighty billion dollars (Smith 2016). While over half of the American population has played the lottery in the last year, the vast majority of tickets are bought by the same twenty percent of citizens (Smith 2016).
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University published a study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making that playing the lottery is not an addictive behavior that affects people’s mental health and theorized that people tend to focus more on the cost-to-benefit ratio of a buying a single ticket rather than adding up the long-term cost of playing the lottery over just a year or even a lifetime (Smith 2016). Some of the participants were given only a single dollar at a time and asked if they wanted to spend it on a lottery ticket.
Others were gifted with five dollars and asked how many tickets they wanted to buy. A third group was given five dollars also but was told they could spend it on lottery tickets or buy none at all. Participants in the second group ended up buying half as many as those given only one dollar at a time. In the third group, eighty-seven percent of the participants bought no tickets (Smith 2016). In addition, it has been found that lower income households tend to play the lottery more often.
Poor people at higher risk
On average, households that make less than $12,400 per year spend five percent of their annual income on the lottery (Smith 2016). A 2008 study was conducted on low-income lottery participants to discover factors that influence them to play the lottery. The first of two experiments found that participants were more likely to play the lottery when they were primed to perceive that their own income was low relative to an implicit standard (Lehrer 2011).
The second experiment found that the players didn’t participate in online gambling and purchased more tickets when they were presented with situations in which rich people or poor people receive advantages, highlighting the fact that everyone has a chance to win (2011). These kinds of ‘low-risk, high-reward’ circumstances undoubtedly appeal to poor people, causing them to spend a disproportionate amount of their already limited income on the lottery, which cannot possibly improve their financial situation.
Still, studies find that the bottom third of households in term of income buy more than half of all lottery tickets sold (O’Brien 2015). It was found, too, that many of those people were playing the lottery in hopes of solving their financial troubles. Making less than thirty thousand dollars a year makes you twenty-five percent more likely to admit to playing the lotto for money rather than for fun (2015). So why does everyone keep playing?
Is playing the lottery a bad idea?
The study’s primary research didn’t convince everyone, though. Naysayers and skeptics often draw on the improbability of winning. Even if you found hundreds of tickets, your chances of winning would still be pretty slim. If the average person purchases one ticket for the Powerball jackpot, their chances of winning are approximately one in almost two million (Smith 2016). Statistically speaking, you are entirely more likely to die from a bee sting, be attacked by a shark, have conjoined twins, or be struck by lightning (2016). For some, the odds are simply not worth it.
The amount of money that an individual who plays the lottery often can spend over a lifetime could ease some of the financial struggles they seek to remedy by winning a large sum of money. On average, a household that makes twenty-eight thousand dollars per year will spend almost five hundred dollars per year on the lottery (O’Brien 2015). There are much smarter and guaranteed profitable ways to invest that kind of money.
Gamblers spend more than they make
If you open a savings account with a six percent interest rate with one hundred dollars and add another one hundred dollars every year for forty years, you will have made almost twenty thousand dollars (“How Savings Works”). Over forty years, you could spend four thousand dollars and be guaranteed to be almost twenty thousand dollars richer in the end; rather than spending that four thousand dollars for absolutely no guarantee and miniscule odds.
As stated above, players rarely think about the amount they spend on the lottery over their lifetime; they think about what they are spending right now. It is far easier to spend one hundred dollars over time in five or ten dollar increments than all at once. One study examined credible sources and reviewed the psychology of playing the lottery found that the end conclusions were consistent with the ‘peanuts effect.’
“There are money amounts that are small enough that people almost ignore them. It almost doesn’t feel real. The lottery and penny slots are kind of the sweet spot of risk taking. They’re really cheap, really inexpensive to play, but there’s a big possible upside” (Smith 2016).
George Loewenstein, author of the study, does not believe that playing the lottery is a bad idea, though. He feels that to say that over half the population is self-destructive and illogical would be ludicrous.
“It serves a psychological function for people… Our pleasure of living is not only based on our current situation but what could be, what we can imagine our situation could become” (Smith 2016).
In this circumstance, the money is not wasted if you do not win because of the psychological benefit playing the lottery can provide.
Lack of understanding of the probabilities
The ‘near miss’ effect is what people feel when they feel like they came so close to winning something. This causes them to want to play again, because if they almost got it before, they might get it this time! In reality, though, when people experience this with playing the lottery, they are never as close as they think they are.
The odds of getting all six numbers correct in the Powerball are about one in three million, meaning the odds of getting three numbers correct are half of that, about one in almost one hundred fifty million, right? Actually, the odds of getting three of the number right are one in six hundred (Lebowitz 2016). The payout for three numbers right is only seven dollars, but getting half of the numbers correct makes people think they were incredibly close to winning the whole thing even if that is not what it means at all.
Most gamblers don’t understand lottery statistics
Understanding lottery statistics is difficult. People can easily tell the difference between ten and one hundred or one thousand, but when the numbers get more complicated, the grasp of what the odds decrease sharply because we do not have much use for numbers that high. We do not need to count out millions of blades of grass in a meadow or the billions of stars in the sky. That is why one in five hundred thousand does not sound too different from one in three million until you really stop to think about it.
The odds recently went from one in less than two million to one in almost three million, but those numbers have little impact on an individuals’ willingness to play the lottery because they do not understand what that really means. The media generally helps us to ignore these odds, as well, because they report on the jackpot winners, not the losers. Therefore, all we wear about are the few who win, not the millions who do not.
The lottery may be contagious
Part of what drives us to play the lottery despite the odds of winning is the bandwagon effect. When all our friends and family are rushing to get their Powerball tickets, it is hard not to get swept up in the excitement. What if they win and you didn’t even try? Everyone else has a chance, why not me? We naturally want to be part of the fad and not feel like we missed out on our chance when everyone else got theirs (Goldbart 2012).
As social animals, humans enjoy sharing with each other in experiences. We get the sense that everyone has a chance to win when the media is constantly publishing stories about another lottery winner whose life changed when they walked into a gas station and spent a buck. The biased media attention serves as an advertisement for the lottery. If everyone is joining in to get their chance at a piece of the pie, why shouldn’t we?
A magic solution to all life’s problems
As Hargroves said, a major allure of playing the lottery is the chance that our lives could change in a second. As the road to achieving the American dream becomes longer and more intricate, more and more people are finding themselves unsure of their financial direction.
We experience the ‘financial anxiety epidemic,’ in which we feel uncertain of what to do, disempowered, and tired of struggling (Goldbart 2012).
This causes us to seek a quick solution- buy a lottery ticket! Doing so renews our sense of hope and wonder, while for a few second or hours we truly believe that we hold in our hands the key to financial freedom and security. It lets us hope again that a better day will come. By spending a little bit of money, you have the chance to win so much more, making it seem like a good investment (Smith 2016). Plus, it is fun to think about what you might do with your life should you suddenly find yourself with an extra few million dollars.
Millions of Americans play the lotto every year in hopes that a couple of bucks can change their lives and end their financial struggles forever. While participants can vary greatly in household income, on average, low-income households are more likely to spend more of their money on lottery tickets in hopes of acquiring financial security. People often get swept up in the fever as Powerball payouts climb higher and higher and ‘somebody has to win,’ buying tickets because they do not want to be the only one who didn’t try.
Others buy their tickets and dream of what their lives might be like if they won it big and never had to worry about money ever again. The general public does not typically understand just how low the odds of winning are and many do not appreciate how their money could be better invested otherwise. These factors cause people to keep playing the lottery, even though the chances of winning are miniscule. Still, millions of people continue to buy tickets in hopes that, someday, the odds will turn in their favor.
Goldbart, Stephen. “Lottery-itis!” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 30 Mar. 2012. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/affluence-intelligence/201203/lottery-itis.
“How Savings Works.” Practical Money Skills For Life. Visa, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. http://www.practicalmoneyskills.com/personalfinance/savingspending/saving/howitworks.php.
Lebowitz, Shana. “3 psychological reasons why we buy lottery tickets when there’s virtually no chance of winning.” Business Insider. Business Insider Inc., 13 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/psychological-reasons-why-we-buy-lottery-tickets-2016-1.
Lehrer, Jonah. “The Psychology of Lotteries.” Wired. Wired, 03 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. http://www.wired.com/2011/02/the-psychology-of-lotteries/.
O’Brien, Matt. “Why you should never, ever play the lottery.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 14 May 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/05/14/why-you-should-never-ever-play-the-lottery/.
Piore, Adam. “Why We Keep Playing the Lottery.” Nautilus. Nautilus, 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. http://nautil.us/issue/17/big-bangs/why-we-keep-playing-the-lottery-2.
Smith, Jacque Wilson. “Why you keep playing the lottery.” CNN Health. Cable News Network, 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/15/health/psychology-playing-lottery-powerball/.