The Psychology of Winning the Lottery

The casting of lots to determine fates and property ownership has a long record, including several instances in the Bible. Lotteries in modern times have been used to raise funds for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects, and are popular in many states. The first state-run lottery was introduced in New Hampshire in 1964, but private lotteries predate this by a good deal.

While the popularity of the lottery has grown, critics charge that state officials run it as a business, and that its advertising often misleads and persuades people to spend their money on the games. Lottery advertisements are notorious for promoting the irrational belief that winning the lottery makes you rich, exaggerating the odds of winning (the truth is that there is only one in ten thousand chance of winning), ignoring tax consequences, and exaggerating the value of the prizes themselves (lotto jackpots are usually paid over a period of years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding their current value).

There are also some psychological motivations that drive people to play the lottery. Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology at CU Boulder, has done research that suggests that people are vulnerable to the “gambler’s fallacy,” in which they think that recent events affect the odds of something with a fixed probability – for example, if they bought a ticket and didn’t win, they might believe that they had an improved chance of winning next time. This kind of counterfactual thinking is known as decision weighting, and it makes people treat small probabilities as if they were much larger.