The Psychology of Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers or symbols are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it to the extent of organizing a national or state lottery. The prize can range from cash to goods to services, such as medical care or housing units. There is a risk of addiction. Moreover, lottery winners can end up worse off than they were before they won.

It is no secret that winning the lottery is a long shot. Yet people continue to play, often spending billions of dollars annually. Some do it for the money, but many believe that it is their only hope of a better life. A new research paper by Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado Boulder sheds light on the psychological motivations behind these decisions. In particular, his findings suggest that people tend to treat small probabilities as larger than they really are. This effect is known as decision weighting, and it can result in people overestimating the chances of winning a lottery.

Van Boven’s study also provides a window into the evolution of state lotteries. In many cases, policy makers adopt a lottery without much of an overview or a clear public welfare goal in mind. Consequently, the establishment of a lottery often results in state officials inheriting a set of policies and a dependency on revenues that they cannot control or manage. State lotteries thus become a classic example of policymaking that is fragmented between the executive and legislative branches, with the result that it is difficult to develop a comprehensive state lottery policy.