Why Do People Play the Lottery?



Lottery is a form of gambling where participants purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize, often large sums of money. Most states and some localities have a lottery, but it’s also possible to play games online. Whether you buy tickets for Powerball or your favorite state lottery game, the odds of winning vary wildly. But how do these odds come about? And what makes some people play the lottery, even though it’s so unlikely to win? Leaf Van Boven, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, sheds light on these questions.

Van Boven says that when it comes to lottery participation, there are a few basic reasons why some people choose to play. First, people tend to overestimate small probabilities. So, for example, if something has a 1% probability of happening, people will often treat it as though it has a 5% probability, which is known as decision weighting. Another psychological factor at play is counterfactual thoughts, in which people imagine what might have happened if they had done things differently. People might think, for instance, that they would have won the lottery if they had bought more tickets or played more often. Finally, people might feel a sense of duty to support their state or community through the lottery. This, Van Boven says, is especially true in states that use lottery proceeds to fund a specific program.