Psychology of the Lottery

For a number of reasons, most people who play the lottery regularly greatly over estimate the odds of winning.  In New York, the law does not require that odds of winning be printed on the ticket, as is required in many states, so it isnít easy to find out.  I did a little homework and got the official lottery brochures that do include odds.  You can also find this information at their website,, by clicking on "odds".

What are the odds of winning big?

Game Prize Odds

Cause of death with similar odds 

Numbers/Straight Play $500 1,000:1 Happily the odds are you won't die this year at all.
Win4 $5,000 10,000:1 Death this year from a self-inflicted firearm injury (16,900:1)
Take Five Jackpot (about $50,000) 575,757:1 Being killed by an earth impacting asteroid (500,000:1)*
Pick 10 $500,000 8,911,711:1 being struck by lightning and killed this year (6,479,405;1)**
Lotto Jackpot  22,528,737:1  (2 plays, different numbers) Being killed in an accident with a specialized industrial vehicle this year(28,509,381:1)*
Mega Millions  Jackpot 175,711,536:1 (as of 3/24/06) I couldn't find anything else as unlikely as winning mega millions



You are significantly more likely to be struck by lightning that you are to win Mega Millions or Lotto, or even Pick 10.

The New York Lottery gave away in prize money about 56% of what it took in last year (2005). That means that over time with a very few exceptions (those rare big winners) you will lose 44% of what you spend on lottery tickets.  If you buy one $2 ticket a week, it is likely that you will lose $45.76 over one year.

If you save $10/week instead of playing the lottery every week of your adult working life (40 years) you will definitely have at least $65,000 in the bank when you retire (assuming a 5% rate of return). If you invest more wisely and get a 10% return, you would have over $270,000. I used the calculator at to get these numbers. (

By any logical analysis, playing the lottery does not make economic sense. So why do people do it?

1.  It's fun!  But it's fun for a reason:  It is an excellent example of Operant Conditioning using variable reinforcement.  People become more likely to repeat a behavior when it is rewarded, especially if it is rewarded on an unpredictable basis.  We all enjoy lots of things that provide us with unpredictable rewards:  playing golf (that perfect drive), or video games (suddenly getting 100,000 points, or an extra life), shopping (that perfect dress, on sale!), playing music (a great riff)... The New York State Lottery uses variable reinforcement to increase the likelihood that people will keep playing. The odds of winning small (but reinforcing) amounts are much higher than winning big--but still not very good:

Game Prize Odds
Numbers/Straight Play $50 100:1
Win4 $50 100:1
Take Five Free Play 9.6:1
Pick 10 $4 22:1
Lotto 6% of prize money 96:1
Mega Millions $2 88:1

2.  Most of us assess the likelihood of an event based on how often we hear about it happening. The same event can get counted many times if we keep hearing about it. In Psychology, this is called the Availability Heuristic. It's a quick and dirty way of helping us make judgments about everyday problems.  And it can work well with a minimum of thought and effort for many everyday problems, when it might be impossible to actually calculate probability.  It does not work for very unlikely events, though. The New York State Lottery is well aware of the Availability Heuristic.  They make sure we hear about winners often.  Winners are required participate in publicity about the lottery as a condition of accepting prize money.

3.  The Gambler's Fallacy: another way we judge the likelihood of an event is our belief that if an event has not occurred recently, it's "over due". The reality of course is that the odds that a certain number will come up is completely unrelated to any past events.  Unfortunately though, gamblers tend to believe that losing is a sure sign that winning will occur soon.

4.  Memory can play tricks on us.  We tend to remember things that confirm what we already believe:  If I think that people win all the time, I am likely to remember each instance of winning I hear about.  Information that doesn't fit my schema (my existing belief system about the lottery) we tend to forget.

Back to June Foley's Main page


Hit Counter