Why I Play The Lottery

There is a persistent meme that lotteries are a tax on people who can’t do maths and are stupid. I don’t think I’m stupid1 and I’m OK2 at maths, and I play the lottery. This is why.

Basically, my desire for money is not linear, because I’m not homo economicus.3 My laws of desire for money are more Einsteinian than Newtonian: linear desire for money works at small amounts, but as they get higher it gets weird. I might desire £4 twice as much as £2, true enough; small amounts, Newton’s sensible laws. But I don’t desire £2 million twice as much as £1 million, because having a million would be enough and what would I do with the second million? I desire a million quite a lot more than a hundred times as much as £10,000, because a million quid is amazing and ten grand is a new car. The lottery gives me, for a negligible outlay, an outside chance of having a million quid, which would be radically life-changing (because I’d never have to work again).

There’s no other way I’ll get a million pounds. Sure, my chances of winning the lottery are at pretty adverse odds (roughly, 1 in 14 million chance of winning; when I win I get somewhere in between 2 and 6 million pounds). But having a million quid is a goal I’d like to hit. I can attempt that with almost no work.

Imagine that I wanted a million, and I started with a pound. Perhaps I should play roulette instead, which has a much more favourable edge than the lottery (although it’s still unfavourable; 5 5/19% for the bank and against me). So I stick my quid on black 17, and it comes up; a chance of 1/38, and I get £36 back for a total of £37. I let that £37 ride, and black 17 comes up again, so I now have £1369. Ride again4 for £50653, and again for £1.8 million, which is retirement money and so I stop. The chances of that happening; 1 in 2 million or so. So playing roulette is very roughly equivalent to playing the lottery (chances of getting a million quid: one in some millions). And the lottery is a lot easier to do; you don’t have to put on a dinner jacket and walk to the casino, and you can play for a pound.5

This is the point. I won’t miss the money, it’s very easy to do, and it might end up changing my life, so why not do it? If I were actually good at maths, maybe I’d plot a graph of some sort of quotient made up of “amount spent” vs “effort required” vs “amount won”. I bet the lottery looks quite a lot better than “working for a living”, on that graph.

I should note here that the second part of the meme which is often quoted alongside it is that lotteries are a tax on the poor; that is, people who will miss that hundred pounds a year. This is completely correct. I would not notice the half-a-pint a week that the lottery costs me; this is not the case for others, and lotteries being a tax on the poor is entirely correct.

  1. not all the time, anyway
  2. ish
  3. People aren’t identical and spherical, either
  4. ignore table limits here
  5. there are casinos which will let you put a quid on a roulette wheel spin, but good luck finding a table which allows wagering a quid and allows wagering fifty grand
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  • Michael Mahemoff responded at likes this. (plus.google.com)
  • Robert Norris responded at likes this. (plus.google.com)
  • Jan Moren responded at likes this. (plus.google.com)
  • Michele Falappi responded at likes this. (plus.google.com)
  • Michael Hall responded at plus.google.com I'll be honest, I'm a bit disappointed to read this. You have a better chance at getting that million quid from Riddling than from the lottery. It's b…
  • Travis Reeder responded at likes this. (plus.google.com)
  • Sam Hewitt (snwh) responded at plus.google.com I usually tell people their likelihood of dying in the instance of telling me they play the lottery is higher than their chances of winning.
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com Indeed it probably is. I don't get why everyone sees that as some sort of problem.
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com +Michael Hall​ see the point about levels of effort required.
  • Sam Hewitt (snwh) responded at plus.google.com Playing the lottery only becomes a problem when you're spending exceedingly ridiculous amounts attempting to win.Buying the odd ticket every now and a…
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com Totally correct. +Michael Hall look at it another way. I would like a million pounds. I am prepared to spend one pound a week and little to no time on…
  • Seth Arnold responded at plus.google.com I'd like to suggest that you not quit working when you win that million pounds. It'll be tempting and perhaps a small vacation is in order, but retire…
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com +Seth Arnold indeed; really I'd need 2.5m minimum, but the lottery in the UK is normally around 3-5m for a win, so it's all ok ;)
  • Rosa Guillén responded at likes this. (plus.google.com)
  • Mart Bay responded at plus.google.com It's just greed. just greed.
  • Sam Hewitt (snwh) responded at plus.google.com Greed is good.
  • Dor Kleiman (configurator) responded at likes this. (plus.google.com)
  • Michael Hall responded at plus.google.com The effort is still too high. You wouldn't play if your chances of winning were actually 0. In reality, it effectively is 0, so in reallity it is not…
  • Sam Hewitt (snwh) responded at plus.google.com Effectively 0 effort?
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com I think I'm not explaining this "it isn't linear" thing right. If I'm putting in basically no effort, then I might as well do it. It's like walking to…
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com (also, the chances of winning any prize is 54-to-1. Which is not "effectively zero". I just don't care that much about the lowest prize :))
  • Ben Thorp responded at plus.google.com it would be interesting to compare this with, say, a deposit-only high interest savings account. Obviously interest rates are a bit shit now, but I wo…
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com +Ben Thorp wouldn't earn as much as just putting the £2 in the savings account, and certainly not a million quid. I've had a bunch of £10 wins, but th…
  • Ben Thorp responded at plus.google.com I guess I was just wondering how you could "game" the system, perhaps working on the assumption that your £2 a week (or whatever) is already written o…
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com This is exactly what's at the root of my objection to the "you do the lottery? you can't do maths! hahahaha!" objection. There is nothing I could do w…
  • Michael Hall responded at plus.google.com I think building a Flappy Bird has be better ratio
  • Stuart Langridge responded at plus.google.com It's not about the ratio, this is what I am trying to say. I have built many apps already, and none of them have made a million quid; they are pretty…
  • Andy Smith responded at plus.google.com Playing the lottery for most people is a pastime and can't really be compared statistically to the opportunity cost of other things the money could be…
  • edfitzhugh responded at twitter.com Glad it’s interesting. I vaguely hoped it might catalyse an argument to last more than two decades; like our endless discussions of whether a priori t…
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com sadly we agree on this one! although there is much to discuss over beers
  • edfitzhugh responded at twitter.com Let’s make that happen soon.