The Hidden Cost of Playing the Lottery

The Hidden Cost of Playing the Lottery


The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America. It has a long history, and its roots reach all the way back to ancient times. The Old Testament instructed Moses to draw lots to divide land, and Roman emperors used them to give away property and slaves during Saturnalia feasts. Today, lottery play is widespread and, judging by sales figures, a huge source of revenue for state governments. In 2021 alone, Americans spent over $100 billion on tickets. But that revenue isn’t without its costs, and the hidden price tag of lotteries is one we often miss.

Lotteries are marketed as harmless, a fun little diversion for folks who have enough money to purchase a ticket or two or three. But the truth is that they’re a massively expensive pastime. And not just for the losers; those who buy tickets are essentially subsidizing people who don’t.

There are a few reasons why. First, the odds of winning are incredibly low. This is true even for the big games, where the prize amounts are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Even for the people who do win, it’s a short-lived windfall; most of them go bankrupt in a few years. The second reason has to do with mental health. As a recent study showed, people who buy tickets have higher rates of depression and anxiety. The third reason has to do with the social pressures to participate. People feel obligated to do so if they see their neighbors doing it, or if they’re exposed to the ads on TV and in the newspaper.

Despite these dangers, there are some good reasons to play the lottery. It’s fun, and you can meet some interesting people. But it’s also an enormous waste of money, and if you’re not careful, it can become addictive. There are a few things you can do to minimize the risk and avoid the downsides.

One is to understand the underlying math. Lotteries can’t be accounted for by decision models based on expected value maximization, because they cost more than the potential gains. But more general models based on utility functions that take into account a wide range of outcomes can explain lottery purchases. These models can help you identify when you’re buying a ticket for the wrong reasons. Then, you can change your behavior. And that might just save your life.