Lottery math is human math

It’s irrational to buy a lottery ticket. And yet, millions do, even more when the prize is huge.

  1. The odds of winning the $1.6 billion MegaMillions lottery are vanishingly small. You’re 400 times more likely to be hit by lightning.
  2. The benefit of winning a huge lottery prize is not that different, in terms of how it will affect your life, than winning a more ordinary large prize. And yet, every time a lottery hits a record-setting level, more people buy tickets.

To be clear: buying this lottery ticket is precisely as rational as paying $800 a day for a device to help to avoid being hit by lightning.

So what’s up with this? How do we explain why millions of otherwise sane people will waste $2 entering a lottery that they’re not going to win? And why do it in occasional droves, as opposed to thoughtfully?

Because, for some people, some of the time, the lottery is a bargain. The only person who buys a lottery ticket for $2 is someone who, right now, thinks it’s worth more than that.

Worth more than that for the feeling of possibility, hope or relief that they feel just before they found out they lost, and the feeling goes away, only to return when they play again.

Worth more than that for the pleasure of being part of a mass sensation, at least for a moment.

Worth more than that because the alternative, the gnawing feeling of being left behind, is worth avoiding for just two dollars.

The surprising thing isn’t that we’re irrational about how we spend our time and money. It’s how much effort we put into lying about it.