Why do People play the Lottery?

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Well, why do they? It’s the kind of question only those who don’t do it would bother asking. I admit I’m one of them. The lottery is a mystery to me – self-evidently daft,  like a slow-motion version of taking a pile of cash and setting fire to it. Why would anyone do it?

One way of answering this kind of question is presented by science journalist Jonah Lehrer: let’s ask some behavioural economists!

The chief conclusion is as follows:

In two experiments conducted with low-income participants, we examine how implicit comparisons with other income classes increase low-income individuals’ desire to play the lottery. In Experiment 1, participants were more likely to purchase lottery tickets when they were primed to perceive that their own income was low relative to an implicit standard. In Experiment 2, participants purchased more tickets when they considered situations in which rich people or poor people receive advantages, implicitly highlighting the fact that everyone has an equal chance of winning the lottery.

An Unsafe Bet

Jim Orford has a book out entitled An Unsafe Bet? The Dangerous Expansion of Gambling and the Debate we should be having. In it he identifies eleven commonly used discourses of gambling. Of these six discourses broadly support the liberalisation of gambling and five support the increase of restrictions on gambling. Orford is fairly relaxed about this typology and even says: ‘Other people would no doubt produce a different list’ (123).

This to Fourcultures is as a red rag to a bull, so here goes.

Source: Orford 2011:124

How to beat the odds and escape your fate

This lottery ticket might promise luck but it's entirely predictable

We hate it when things that are supposed to be random actually turn out not to be. But on reflection it’s not quite that simple. We like random events to be random in entirely predictable ways. The ‘Fatalism’ quadrant of Grid-Group Cultural Theory includes random activity as a key aspect of social organisation. But it is contrived randomness that is sought – a term coined by professor of government, Christopher Hood:

“Contrived randomness denotes control of individuals… by more or less deliberately making their lives unpredictable in some way”.
Hood et al., eds (2004) Controlling Modern Government. Variety, Commonality and Change. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Press.

Jonah Lehrer (author of The Decisive Moment, previously mentioned at Fourcultures) has a fine article in Wired about how to beat the scratchies. Two ideas stand out.

First, there is a strong sense that we know what kind of randomness to expect when we buy a scratch card. We are really buying into an almost Platonic ideal of randomness that is somehow, we feel, built into the universe. When Mohan Srivastava, a Canadian statistician, notices this is bogus we somehow want the scratch card manufacturers to improve their game and make the tickets really and truly random. We’re happy to be cheated by the goddess of Fortune, but emphatically not by mere mortals. This ideal of luck is very powerful – and very deceptive.

Second, the tenor of the article is that the world of lottery scratch cards isn’t really random at all. Lehrer implies suggests that there is an underworld of crooks who are tricking us out of our randomness fantasy by gaming the system to launder their drug money. Lehrer quotes Srivastava, the statistician who first spotted the flaw in the scratch cards:

“if there were people who could sort the winners from the losers, then what you’d see on the payout statistics is exactly what we see. This is what a plundered game looks like.”

In fact everywhere except in the Fatalism quadrant of Cultural Theory there is a strong bias against the idea of luck. Wired Magazine, we may hazard, does not have a readership of Fatalists. Rather the core demographic is competitive, innovative Individualism. You can imagine them (us?) nodding sagely in agreement when reading Mohan Srivastava’s reason for not making money out of the scratchies:

“to be honest, I make more as a consultant, and I find consulting to be a lot more interesting than scratch lottery tickets.” [note the link to a pay comparison site – this is the stuff Individualism is made of].

What  Srivastava says about the scratch card industry is also true, it is held, for life in general:

“The game can’t be truly random. Instead, it has to generate the illusion of randomness while actually being carefully determined.”

It turns out that the best way to beat the fickle finger of Fate is to refuse to believe in it at all.


Now read:

How to be a Fatalist

Fatalist policy in action

Fatalism in America today

Tempting Fate in schools