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Lotteries: Why do people play them?

A more interesting question to ask is: Why in the hell do people keep going back to it?

The short answer is that gambling is addictive, but that relies on the concept of an intermittent reward schedule. The reward schedule for a national lottery is not so much "intermittent" as it is "non-existent".

To put this in perspective, I occasionally deal out poker hands to myself for amusement when I’m bored with playing accordion (these days it’s something I do while I’m waiting for something to finish cooking). I’ve been doing this since the since the age of eight or nine, the same length of time as New Zealand’s national lottery has existed. I have dealt, from a fairly shuffled deck of cards, every kind of poker hand imaginable. I have dealt myself a royal flush, I’ve dealt myself four aces, I’ve seen every kind of hand - but due to the fact that probability cares little for making sense, before January of this year, I had never dealt a flush. Yet people I have known who buy lottery tickets never, ever win big. I have relatives who have been buying tickets since it started and they have not won.

Now, if you’re a rat in a box, pressing a lever for a treat, you’ll press the lever with a mad obsession if the treat comes at random intervals. However, if you never get a treat, you’ll just eat your pellets and be happy with what you have. Gambling works this way: You press the lever (literally, in the case of slot machines), and sometimes you get a reward. The reward is usually small, but it’s a reward, and this shows that you can win, reinforcing the behaviour. The prizes are displayed, so you know that there is a bigger prize available, and your brain, which is in some regards still an ape brain, says “I know I can win, so if I keep going I should eventually win the big prize”.

Yes… and eventually the universe will end.

It’s entirely possible to get a good hand of cards in some games because the range of possible outcomes is not actually that big. You can also play well (even in blackjack, to some degree) and make a mediocre hand of cards work for you, or upgrade what you have. But you don’t get to play well in a lottery. When a random selection of balls are mechanically popped out of a tumbler you have no ability to influence the outcome. A lottery ticket is to some extent the same as the cards you are dealt in blackjack, but you don’t get to add more numbers to your ticket. You certainly can’t bluff the television or the tumbler the way you can bluff in poker. With a lottery, there’s no way to apply knowledge, skill and experience to gain a victory – unless you’ve seen the movie WarGames.

So, there must be a lot of people who aren’t winning anything. Why on earth do they still buy lottery tickets despite the lack of reinforcement? Remember that these people are not quite smart enough to figure out just how much of a losing proposition a lottery is. Some of them believe that if you keep picking the same numbers, they will eventually come up – and of course they will be guaranteed to come up, but only in an infinitely long sequence of trials (as each drawing is a separate event unaffected by the results of previous drawings), so these people are unlikely to win before they die of old age. Other people will study the frequency of numbers drawn and choose their numbers based on this, despite the fact that a single number coming out of the machine slightly more frequently than others does not suggest that it is in any way likely that this will continue in the future.

The point is that most people don’t understand numbers. This is why people buy things that won’t last ten years on hire purchase, and why people will call the psychic hotline. They can’t add up how much $5.99 per minute will be after being on hold for five minutes, let alone work out the interest on their new cell phone that will be obsolete or lost in six months. There are people who can’t even cross out six numbers on the lottery form – hence the random ticket function on the behemoth console wedged into corner stores. This inability to manage numbers also means people will have trouble working out whether they have the right combination of numbers to match the criteria for a small win. That’s okay: The machine can do it for them. It’s simple.

But this means that they have to go into a place that sells lottery tickets. They then have to stand in line looking at the display telling them how much money can be won this week, and hand over their lottery tickets and watch them get dropped in a slot. If they win, lights flash and the machine will tell them they’ve won. If it’s above a certain amount it plays a song! It’s a slot machine, without the lever. People don’t usually get the rewarding noise and light show, but when they do you can see the smug pride radiating off them. If they win, they get to show off. If they lose, the person behind the counter will, if they are an intelligent shop worker, say "sorry" and sympathise, and then ask them if they'd like a ticket for this week's draw.

So the customer (a term for someone who is buying a product, abused and misused in regards to people who play lotteries) buys more tickets. They’re there in the shop, after all, and they’re the sort of people who are susceptible to buying lottery tickets. It's not just the product saturation (here, shops with Lotto counters are referred to as "Lotto shops" to fix in people's minds that it's a product you buy, and that the point of these places is now to buy lottery tickets) or the addictive nature of gambling that does it: The difficulty of working out if they've won, not to mention the fact that a machine can do it for you, has these people queuing up for more tickets. You can even win more tickets, which is even more training to go in to a lottery vendor.

Win or lose, the point is not just to get people to keep gambling by giving out small rewards, but to get them in there, in front of the counter with the signs telling them how much money they can win, by a variety of means. By pretending to make these people's lives easier by having the machine check their tickets for them, the lottery commission is just making life that much harder.

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