What is it about the lottery that a certain class of intellectuals finds so unfathomably difficult to understand?

In an article yesterday, for the Guardian on “statistical illiteracy”, Cory Doctorow wrote:

in the US, its slogan is “Lotto: You’ve Got to Be In It to Win It”. A more numerate slogan would be “Lotto: Your Chance of Finding the Winning Ticket in the Road is Approximately the Same as Your Chance of Buying it”. The more we tell people that there is a meaning gap between the one-in-a-squillion chance of finding the winning ticket and the one-in-several-million chance of buying it, the more we encourage the statistical fallacy that events are inherently more likely if they’re very splashy and interesting to consider.

Yes, I agree. You are almost unfathomably unlikely to win the jackpot in the lottery. And yes, the odds are so low, that it actually is difficult for a human being to conceive of them. But that does not mean that buying lottery tickets is stupid. A Powerball ticket is a dollar ($2 if you select the multiplier). That is not very much money. And what you buy for that money is the fantasy that in two days you might become unfathomably wealthy.

Now, that is a fantasy that many Americans have, even without the lottery. Personally, I have a fantasy of all kinds of very unlikely writing-related things happening that will gratify various social slash monetary desires. I find this fantasy to be extremely pleasurable, and I would not willingly sacrifice it.

Furthermore, I spend an incredible amount of time and money on writing to keep this fantasy alive. Some people choose, instead, to spend a few dollars every week to do the same thing…what is so stupid about that? If someone spends $10 on a movie ticket, people do not seem to find that repulsive or irrational. At the end of a movie you haven’t gotten anything tangible, other than a memory. A lottery ticket is exactly the same (only cheaper).

I actually don’t want to say mean things about Cory Doctorow, or other people who maintain these sorts of views, but I really do wonder at it. Is it so easy to believe that hundreds of millions of people are doing something just because they are stupid? Is it so easy to believe that if they were only lectured at a little bit (the title of Doctorow’s piece is “promoting statistical literacy”) then they would understand the error of their ways and stop spending their own hard-earned money on something they want? Is it so hard to believe that people do something because they gain some pleasure from it? And that the very fact that they are willing to continue to spend that money for that pleasure indicates that the pleasure is worth more to them than the money?

There’s an additional argument here, which is that it might make good sense, in terms of maximizing your happiness, to buy a $1 ticket that gives you a 1 in five million chance of winning a million dollars, if the utility you derive from having $1m is more than five million times the utility you get from having $1. This is not at all strange, if you think about it. No matter how many $1s most people save, they are never going to have $1,000,000. A million dollars represents a kind of security and safety that most Americans will never achieve. And if a person looks at their life, decides they really want that, and realizes that the only way they will ever achieve that security is by winning the lottery, then it might make good sense, economically-speaking, for them to buy lottery tickets.

Indeed, isn’t that the gamble that many of us are making, in some way? People who quit their jobs to start businesses know that they are likely to fail (and many of them do fail), but they desire what a successful business can give them so much that the risk is worth it. A dollar, by itself, is meaningless. A dollar, or a million dollars, only has the value that human beings put on it. If someone spends a dollar for something, then by definition, it is worth a dollar. In some ways, this assumption of Doctorow’s is as empty as criticizing someone for paying money to see a movie you don’t like, or a book you don’t like. Yeah, if they understood things the way you understand them, then spending that money would have been a waste. But it is precisely the fact that they did choose to spend that money which shows you that spending it was not a waste. Let’s try to have some more faith in the reasoning abilities of our fellow men.

4 thoughts on “What is it about the lottery that a certain class of intellectuals finds so unfathomably difficult to understand?

  1. David Barron

    (Full disclosure – I am entirely uninterested in gambling and apparently don’t feel the vicarious thrill that I see in those who are. I play poker socially, which is only a game of chance because all the people I play with suck at it almost equally.)

    My personal feeling: If you buy one ticket per drawing, it falls under your argument. You’ve bought into a little piece of a fun dream, even if it’s not very likely. $1 is only a tax on the poor, who should probably use their hard-earned buck for something useful. If you buy more than one chance per drawing, it becomes (increasingly) a tax on the statistically ignorant. There’s a reason the rich don’t play the bulk lottery to guarantee a payoff: It’s not a fair bet.

    My political feeling is that you shouldn’t have to trick suckers into a regressive tax scheme to fund education. If society wants a service, they should be willing to pay their fair share for it.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      What is “something useful” though? Nothing is “useful” in itself. I mean, one could make the same argument that people should only drink water and never drink soda, or that no one should eat at restaurants. A soda is a dollar, and it’s certainly not giving you any nutritive benefit not given by water. Usefulness is entirely determined by the spender. Something is useful only if it accomplishes my aims.

      The reason rich people don’t play the bulk lottery is not because they’re smart; it’s because they don’t need to. They have better ways to cultivate the dream of massive wealth. But you’d be hard-pressed to argue that rich people don’t gamble. They certainly do. I remember hearing that John McCain can drop $100,000 on craps at a time. One might even argue that that’s an even poorer investment than the lottery, because there is no instant, huge payoff. There’s just little wins and little losses. However, I think the point of playing like that is that it’s in some way fun to have large amounts of money on the line, which is a much different kind of thrill than playing the lottery.

  2. Ben Godby

    I like your point about the fantasy aspect of the lottery; it’s good feelin’s. Every few months, when I see some humongous jackpot advertised, a buy exactly one ticket–no encore, no extra, no whatever. Just the one ticket. I figure that the odds are so humongously low no matter what, that I basically have the same odds of winning with one line of numbers as I do with having ten or twenty–which, I remember from my gas station attendant days, people routinely purchased. But the fantasy of holding that ticket and imagining that I might just end up fabulously rich is pretty sweet, whether or not I win (which I obviously haven’t).

    And besides, people actually do win those things. It could just as easily be me. The odds are low, but you’re right, it’s only a dollar, and if you win, well–shit, son. You’re rich.


    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, being fabulously wealthy would be really good. But don’t forget about our other lottery….the writer jackpot…good times. I mean, I figure we have at least the chance of becoming Steven King rich as we do of winning at Powerball.

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