Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Winning the lotto

This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of having Skepchick Carr2D2, and her husband Tim3PO come stay at my house for a few days to celebrate Moose’s (my son’s) 2nd birthday. Yesterday, they had to leave, and I miss them. I miss all the Skepchicks… we live too far apart to see each other very often.

To solve this, I’ve proposed that when Mr. Elyse and I the lotto, we will purchase a large piece of land and build a giant house on it for all the Skepchicks to live.  I’ve already dubbed it Skepchick Island. I’m going to buy us all new MacBooks, too.

I’ve never bought a lotto ticket in my life, actually, however my husband plays pretty regularly. Neither one of us really believes we’ll hit a multi-million dollar jackpot, but we still talk about our plans for when it happens.

I used to date a guy that said, “The dollar is worth the dream.” And I tend to agree. From the time you buy the ticket until you check your numbers, that little piece of paper has the potential to give you the power to do all the things you’ve wanted to do but couldn’t because it’s financially irresponsible or financially impossible. Finally you could buy that house, take that vacation, start that business, or move all the Skepchicks to an island.

Do you agree? Is the dream that comes with buying a lotto ticket worth the dollar you put into it? Or are the odds too ridiculous to bother? Do you play? Do you have a “when it happens” plan?

Elyse

Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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142 Comments

  1. People do win and several times a year at that. Someone is going to win so why not me. I can afford to spend a dollar a few times a year.

    I do have a fairly detailed plan for what I would do when I win. I would set up trust funds for my children, parents and grandmother to make sure they have income for the rest of their lives.

    I would set up another one for the SGU and the JREF to help fund the important work they do.

    I would endow a scholarship fund for up and coming science students.

    Then I would travel. See all the places that I have only read about in National Geographic.

  2. I think the lottery is a huge scam. With any type of gambling, you’ll most likely come out behind in the end. At a casino, at least you can get some pleasure out of the game, and you’ll probably just lose a small percentage of the money you put in. However, I think state lotteries typically give out only half of the money they take in. If you played for a near-infinite amount of time, you’d get back half of what you put in. Each person has to decide for themselves whether that tiny amount of entertainment from a lottery ticket is worth the dollar, but it’s irrational to think you’ll win. You’d be better off investing that dollar in something else, or even just saving it. I’ve often heard people say that somebody has to win it, but realistically, thousands of people have to lose it for that one person to win. Scratch-off cards are the biggest scam of all. They design it so that you win, say, $15 after buying $20 worth of tickers, so that you think you are actually ahead when you’re actually behind. I remember trying to explain this to a friend-of-a-friend when she was 18 and I was just 17, but she just insisted that she had won on her most recent card. At least she didn’t spend the $5 she had “won” on 5 more cards.

  3. Gambling is a tax for those who are bad at math.

    The lottery is just a state run, optional, tax for the undereducated. I find it highly immoral.

    Not to mention that it’s also a horrible monopoly, if it’s immoral to gamble then why is the state running it’s own gambling racket? If it isn’t then why is it illegal for everyone else (except the native americans)?

    Which is a whole another level of shameful behavior related to gambling perpetrated by the state.

  4. I do not particularly like the culture of having people believe that they can get lots of money doing nothing, and I do not think either that lottery intensity should be so much higher that its extension (I’d rather have many more people win smaller, much needed amounts, than one single person win so much money that he or she ends up screwed indirectly).

    On the other hand, yes, you sometimes have to take the chances. The chances of e.g. finding extraterrestrial life may be more or less dim, but I think the SETI program is justified. The same holds for lots of lines of research: many experiments were tried because of nothing more than a good guess and yet they yielded some great finding, sometimes completely unrelated to the original hypothesis. So, since before the experiment you may just happen to ignore the posterior probability of something happening, you cannot trust the prior that it won’t happen either.

    On the other hand, no matter how low the probability, someone always wins the lottery. Would you give up your education because only a few people make it to top research institutions each year? Sure not; the top/winning goal is irrelevant in both cases, what’s true is that, thanks only to the possibility of success, kids get educated (even if most never make it to be science stars) and people pay for others’ getting the jackpot, even if never getting it themselves.

    Overall, it’s actually pretty Darwinian.

  5. I play the big multi-state lottos when the value of the prize crosses the $80-100 million threshold. At that point, I figure that, due to the increased attention the big prize attracts, more people are playing, and while the odds of any PARTICULAR person winning remain the same as ever, the odds that someone will win on a given night go up as more tickets are purchased overall.

    I think the dream is worth a certain amount of cash… maybe no more than a couple of bucks once or twice a week when the prize is right. I mean, if the dollar or so isn’t really HURTING me, I don’t mind spending it every now and again.

    I do indeed have a very solid plan in place in case I should win. Unfortunately, I can’t share any of it here with you because a significant part of that plan involves NOT TALKING ABOUT IT.

    Oh, and disappearing to the point where I’m officially classified as a cryptid, of course.

  6. However, if I did come into $1 million somehow (maybe an inheritance or something), I’d be very practical with it. First, I would pay off my student loans. Then I would buy a moderately-priced house (or pay off my mortgage if I already had one) and I’d buy a new car because I actually need a new one. After that, I probably wouldn’t have much left because of taxes, but I would buy a few luxuries like a really fast computer and put the rest into a retirement fund or maybe CDs.

  7. I only play when the jackpot is up. Better to spend $2 to not win 10 million than spend $2 to not win 2 million.:D

    The way I see it, a lot of the profit that goes to the lotto commission ends up in provincial coffers, to pave roads, and fund schools. It’s a tax that we willingly pay in exchange for the services the government provides, hopefully keeping other tax rates down a bit. And if we happen to win a big chunk of cash in the process, so much the better.

    But I don’t hold out any expectation of winning. It just makes loosing a colossal let-down.Instead, I play with a quasi-realistic understanding of the odds, and the expectation of loosing. That way, winning becomes a pleasant surprise.

    If I won, I’d probably buy a cabin in the woods somewhere, pay off the car, pay off all my friends’ student loans, maybe start my own business, and knowing my wife, probably travel a lot.

  8. Never have played. Never will. Always mock those who do play.

    What people who play the lotto fail to appreciate is if they stuck that lotto money in a sock, or better yet, a bank account after a period of time they would have a 100% chance of getting a significant amount of money instead of a tiny chance of getting a large amount of money. For example $5 a week for 10 years is $2600. Throw in 3% interest and it’s $3100.

    Flip this around, suppose I came up to you and said “I will give you a check for $3100 right now or I will give you a 1 in 2,000,000 chance of winning the lottery. Which do you want?” I can’t imagine anyone with a properly functioning brain opting for the second choice. I think there’s a short circuit in humans that prevents us from thinking about large numbers rationally.

  9. I do have a detailed plan about what I’ll do when I win the lottery. College tuition for the kids, gifts to relatives, Porsches … all that stuff.

    The only part that’ s missing from my plan is actually buying a ticket. Because it is all just a dream.

    Mike.

  10. I have a degree in Mathematics, so I feel I owe it to the fine people who gave me that degree to not play. The odds are indeed ridiculous, and big winners are often miserable a few years down the road.

    That said, I don’t judge people who play. It’s fairly cheap entertainment.

  11. Yes, the odds are ridiculous. On the other hand, there’s no measurable harm in playing if the money you spend on it is insignificant compared to your overall spending. If the amount you’re spending on lottery tickets is less than you spend on, say, breath mints, you’re probably OK.

    What would I do if I won? Oh, probably practical stuff like paying off my mortgage and my ex’s mortgage, and putting a major boost into the kids’ education funds. After that, I’d see what’s left and start looking at leisure time activities.

  12. A few years ago, as an exercise in class, I worked with some students to find the expected value of PowerBall. The break even point was when the jackpot hit around $45 million. What that means is that, over the very long term, if you play only when the jackpot is at or above $45 million, you’ll at least make your money back. How long that might take is open to debate. So those of you who play “when it gets big enough” have at least got a little math to back up your dream. :-)

  13. @MathMike “you’ll at least make your money back”

    How is that possible? As the value of the lottery increases doesn’t the value of your win decrease?

    I realize there is only a finite number of number combinations and therefore your odds of winning are the same but the fact that your proceeds are split by other winners, which becomes more likely with more value, and the fact that the state takes a huge chunk out because of taxation… It seems more likely that you could not possibly ever break even over time.

  14. @davew: “I will give you a check for $3100 right now or I will give you a 1 in 2,000,000 chance of winning the lottery. Which do you want?”

    The disjunction is crucially wrong as you put it in that it should be “I’ll give you a check for $3100 right now WHICH YOU CAN ONLY DISCASH AFTER 10 YEARS HAVE PASSED, or I will give you a 1 in 2,000,000 chance of waking up tomorrow morning with $10,000,000 in your bank account.”

    In this scenario (the actual one), I can think of a lot of people who would choose the first option, starting with myself if I was, say, ~70 years old, or also myself if I e.g. was 25, was facing some life-or-death health threat and needed surgery for, say, $6,000.

    It’s the old trick of the endless regression when thinking of buying e.g. a new computer: why to spend $2,000 now if you can get a much better computer for the same price in two months? Simply because you NEED the computer now or else you won’t get your stuff done in time. Speculation, no matter how rational, has the limits of practicality.

  15. I have only ever played when a bunch of people from my office are chipping in for a big jackpot, husband does the same.

    I have a detailed plan even though it’s ridiculous. Build my dream yard. Pay off my house. If there is any money left over depending on the amount, quit my job and open my own business while giving a donation to the research my group works on.

    That’s about it. I know it’s ridiculous but these are some of the myriad things I consider when I’m bored in a seminar.

  16. @Skepthink:

    I’ll give you a check for $3100 right now WHICH YOU CAN ONLY DISCASH AFTER 10 YEARS HAVE PASSED, or I will give you a 1 in 2,000,000 chance of waking up tomorrow morning with $10,000,000 in your bank account

    No, I don’t think that lotteries pay out the winnings as a lump sum, unless you agree to a huge cute in the money.

  17. I believe I’ve played lotto a total of 5 times in my 36 years of life, not including those times I received a ticket in a card or along with a gift.

    I do, however, play the “what would you do if you won the lotto” game with everyone I intend to date in any sort of serious manner – it’s amazing how one’s values and priorities are so unflinchingly displayed when discussing a purely fantasy situation.

  18. I play when the prize gets up to around 60 mil and then I only play on a whim. I know it’s insane odds but I dream a little and it’s worth the five bucks that I spend. I think I spend close to 20 dollars a year on lotto. Most of the time I even forget to check to see if I win until about two weeks later. Like today at lunch, I was walking by the lotto both at the airport (O’Hare) and thought ah what the hell its at 80 mill or so. I do like it when the guy says “good luck” after I get my ticket I usually answer “It’s going to take more then that to win” It’s just something to do.

  19. Lots of people play the lottery or go to casinos despite knowing that the odds favor the house. Why? Because part of what you’re paying for is the fun you get from playing. I have to admit, I stopped going to casinos when they started boring the hell out of me – but as long as it was fun, I simply compared my losses with the cost of doing something else fun.

    So if you enjoy playing the lottery, just ask your self it you’re getting a dollar’s worth of fun out of it.

    Now, I also used to work in a candy store, and our main business was selling lots and lots of lottery tickets to compulsive gamblers who clearly could not afford the losses playing a stupid game with terrible odds. For those people, it’s a sickness, not a game, and they need help.

    The irony of the state running a game like this is enormous – if you run a numbers game, you’ll be arrested by the vice squad for doing something immoral. When the state runs the game, its not just no longer illegal, its not immoral anymore. WTF?

    So as you can see I have mixed emotions about this.

  20. @catgirl: The national lottery in the UK does pay out the winnings in one lump sum without any cut in the prize.

    I just remembered that a friend of my Dad did win the lottery. The jackpot was £11 million, but a freak result saw around a thousand people pick the winning numbers, so he only got around £10,000.

  21. As TheCzech notes, there seems to be an unusually high number of lottery winners who end up broke or even horrendously in debt not too many years after winning. Certainly not a majority of winners, but a larger percentage than I would have expected. I wonder if that’s because the people most likely to play are also least likely to be financially savvy in the first place.

    Of course if I were to win I’m *sure* that wouldn’t happen to me ;)

  22. @catgirl: Even if it’s $1,000,000 every 6 months over 5 years, the point is still the same. I assume that, given the kind of prizes people play lottery for, every hypothetical payment is probably going to be substantially bigger than those $3,100 you would get otherwise. Therefore, it will still make sense to play the lottery whenever you really need to get $3,101 before a specific deadline. You know, if we’re talking about 10 years, by the time I get the money I won’t really need it, I will already be rich by then :-D

  23. @revmatty:

    I think a big part of is that $1 million seems like much more than it actually is. Being a millionaire doesn’t mean endless luxury like movie stars have. After taxes, it’s enough to buy a reasonably-priced house (not a mansion though), a mid-priced car, and a few luxuries. Even $10 million doesn’t buy as much as people think it does. So winners often dream of solid-gold swimming pools, diamonds the size of your fist, and a team of servants to cook and serve your lobster and clean your 20 toilets, but the money just doesn’t go that far.

  24. I don’t really play, but i have bought like 2 tickets in the past. I happened to win $100 on one of the tickets which was nice, but it was also a $10 lotto ticket. So i made $90 profit on it really. My Mom plays the lotto regularly and hasn’t won much at all. I think she is definitely throwing away more than she’s making. I do believe the lotto is pretty ridiculous. The odds are so small that you could put thousands of dollars or more into buying tickets before you actually win big money. There are other ways to live the dream of course, but they require a lot of work.

  25. Lottery winnings in Canada are tax exempt, and they pay out in a lump.

    I play sometimes when it gets over 15 mil or so. I figure that I’m only going to win once, so I may as well make it worth while.

    In BC, a big chunk of lottery revenue goes to charities, youth sports and that sort of thing, so I don’t begrudge the losses.

    Besides, the odds are infinitely better if you play than if you don’t.

  26. My mantra to my math students is, “The lottery is for people who are bad at math.”

    @Skepotter: “Besides, the odds are infinitely better if you play than if you don’t.”
    There’s an example of bad math…

  27. @Ssteppe:

    My dad used to say “the lottery is like a tax on the stupid”. I don’t know if he was original or was quoting someone else. I think it’s more polite to say that it’s a tax on the uneducated, who also tend to be poor so the prize seems even greater to them. I think it takes advantage of the people who can least afford to buy tickets, and this brings up some ethical issues.

  28. @revmatty: “I wonder if that’s because the people most likely to play are also least likely to be financially savvy in the first place.”

    Ding, ding, ding! Very few people are going to get rich quickly, but most people could get rich slowly with the right mindset. This is exactly not the mindset that would view a $5 lottery ticket as a form of entertainment. Yes, it’s only $5, and a latte is only $3.50, and an iPhone is only $45 a month, and cable TV is only $40 a month (but I upgraded to digital because it’s only $35 more),… and it only adds up to all of a paycheck.

    Maybe it’s a difference in wiring. I get way more pleasure out of watching that $5 and a few of it’s buddies compound interest over time than I ever could by spending a week hoping for a miracle.

  29. @faith: I’m the same, I only play as part of a larger group in the lab, as I don’t want to be the only person left trying to hold down the fort after everyone leaves post win.

    If I did win I’m not sure what I’d buy, a really good new camera (~EOS D1 or the like), a new bicycle and that’s about it. Regular long extended breaks to interesting places around the world would be nice. I don’t think I’d give up work though, I might be more choosy about exactly where I work though.

  30. I tend to think the dream isn’t worth the dollar, so I don’t play. I see the lottery as similar to video games in an arcade: you’re paying for fun (the dream), not for a return on investment. I’m with @davew: getting rich slowly with better return on investment is more pleasurable than a dream that never comes true.

  31. @catgirl: “””it’s a tax on the uneducated”””

    That isn’t really much more polite than what your father said. First, taxes are not bad, which is why they can’t be conceived of as a penalty on socioeconomically unfavored people. Second, the logic of taxation is actually that the more money you make, the more you pay, so lottery wouldn’t be a tax on the uneducated from that point of view either. Third, following from the two preceding statements, uneducated or poorer people shouldn’t pay any additional “tax” and if you have no problem with that idea or even agree with it, then you’re probably the one lacking education. Fourth, you may spend your dollars on parties hoping that you will meet somebody interesting, even if chances may be less than those of winning the lottery, and some people play the lottery because they could really use the money. Why’s your option better and why are you any less stupid that somebody who really needs the money?

    When your child tells you “Some day I will be an astronaut”, you will just encourage him by telling him “The odds that you will are so low that you’d better start training to serve hamburguers, which is what chances are you’ll end up doing, son”?

  32. I play very rarely, and I figure it as entertainment of the “What if” variety. It may make better financial sense to invest the dollar, but I’d hate to live like a complete miser.

    I’ve got a basic plan – house & cars get paid off first, then we see how much is left over. If it’s of the ludicrously rich category, then it’s world travel time :) If it’s the living comfortably variety, I might change jobs or something, and just enjoy the lack of large bills.

  33. Under a cost-benefit analyse, supposing you spent $1 per lotto cycle, and there were 3 cycles per week. That’s a weekly cost of $3, and $156 per year. Until the numbers are announce, your ticket is both a winning number, and a losing number. So, you could look at it as though you have the winning number, until that notion is fasified. Isn’t that notion worth $156 a year?

    Or, just simplifying it, its $3 a week, what esle could you buy?

    As far as the “what if”…for me, that chance is so remote, I don’t think about what I would do. That’s fall into the “not very likely, so don’t worry about it” category, like Britney Spears winning an Oscar for Best Actress.

  34. @Skepthink:

    “the logic of taxation is actually that the more money you make, the more you pay, so lottery wouldn’t be a tax on the uneducated from that point of view either.”

    I think your logic is a little flawed here. Since the uneducated tend to make less, paying for lottery tickets (which if we accept to be a form of taxation) appears to break the rule that “the more you make the more you pay”. Which is why the morality is highly suspect.

    How exactly does a belief that poorer people shouldn’t be the target of extra taxes imply, in any way, a lack of education?

    Also, I’m sorry but your astronaut metaphor seems very poor. The primary difference, as I see it, being that an investment in education or skills towards being an astronaut will yield positive results regardless of whether or not you achieve your original goal, whereas an investment in lottery tickets will only yield negative ones.

  35. @revmatty: “I wonder if that’s because the people most likely to play are also least likely to be financially savvy in the first place.”

    Ding ding ding. You got it. Most people just aren’t prepared to for from $10/hr to having $10 million. So they win, and they don’t keep track of it. They buy their family houses and cars. They don’t get an accountant or a lawyer. And then two years later, they are broke.

  36. @Skepthink:

    First, taxes are not bad, which is why they can’t be conceived of as a penalty on socioeconomically unfavored people.

    Well, that’s a pretty vague statement. Certainly taxes can be good, but they can also be bad. I think that taking advantage of uneducated people is one of those areas that counts as bad.

    Second, the logic of taxation is actually that the more money you make, the more you pay, so lottery wouldn’t be a tax on the uneducated from that point of view either.

    I don’t accept your premise that people who buy lottery tickets make more money. The cast majority of people who buy lottery tickets will not end up with any more money because of it. Also, the logic of taxation in general is not always that the more you make, the more you pay. That only applies to certain types of tax, such as income tax.

    Fourth, you may spend your dollars on parties hoping that you will meet somebody interesting, even if chances may be less than those of winning the lottery, and some people play the lottery because they could really use the money. Why’s your option better and why are you any less stupid that somebody who really needs the money?

    Show me a better way to meet people, and I’ll do it. There are already better ways to make money than playing the lottery, such as just not spending money on lottery tickers.

    When your child tells you “Some day I will be an astronaut”, you will just encourage him by telling him “The odds that you will are so low that you’d better start training to serve hamburguers, which is what chances are you’ll end up doing, son”?

    That’s a pretty bad analogy. My child will have a lot more control over his or her career choice than over the lottery. My child can study hard and work hard to become and astronaut. The only way to increase the odds of winning the lottery is to buy more tickets. If my child’s goal is to make a lot of money, there are better ways to do it than playing the lottery. If my child’s goal is to become an astronaut, I would encourage them to study and work hard instead of maybe entering some theoretical contest they find in a magazine.

    Frankly, I’m surprised that any skeptic would play the lottery with the intention of actually making money from it. Entertainment is completely subjective and I hope that the lottery players on this blog get their dollar’s-worth of enjoyment from it, but let’s be realistic that it’s not a good way to try to make money.

  37. My grandparents didn’t speak for a week because my grandmother said she’d give half her lottery winnings to the Catholic church (actually, I think grampa had a point on this one). I know plenty of other couples who’ve had pretty nasty arguments over what they’d do with money they’re NEVER GOING TO WIN.

    Anyway my plan:
    1. Quit job
    2. Penthouse
    3. Aston Martin Vantage
    4. some for my dad and my brother, everyone else can get lost (maybe a small donation to the JREF)
    5. make a bonfire of begging letters and laugh at long lost relatives who suddenly decide they always really liked me after all
    6. trophy wife
    7. get fat(ter)
    8. expensive divorce
    9. bitterness & poverty
    10. death.

  38. I buy 2 lotto tickets per drawing, 1 powerball, 1 megabucks (wisconsin lotto) I don’t think I’m going to win, but you cant win unless you pay. I really do get to day dream throughout the work week, for just a dollar. to some people having a 1 in 200 million chance is nothing to them, but somebody has to win and if you don’t dream big, you can’t win big.

  39. I like this AI. Its always been an internal struggle between my rational ego and irrational id. and it seems to have produced a pretty interesting debate on the forum. I really like playing the lotto, but definitely not compusively, or even close to every week. i’m in the category with some of the other folks that wait for it to get to a certain amount- mine being $100mil+, then i insist on buying a ticket or two(i actually plan on buying 1 today because i think the multi-state powerball is over $130million!). But I am realistic in it; i don’t quit my job, or open up a buncha new credit cards. I definitely view it as entertainment, for the very reason the AI suggested. For $1, i spend 2-3 days in a row riding the euphoria of what I’m gonna do with that $100mill, letting my imagination run wild: pay off all the debts, then my family and friend’s debts. Then globetrotting for a year or so Paris, Sydney, Montreal, London, Munich, Moscow, Tokyo(and i don’t just wanna get a hotel room for the week, i’m renting a nice apartment for a few months at a time), then come back to Denver to open up “Uncle Mike’s Tavern”. …Really the freedom, the free time, no more cubicle at 8am, thats what i want to win.

  40. and so i don’t seem like a total greedy dick, i do have honest intentions to donate to worthy charities. Definitely JREF, Bill&MelindaGates, NPR, somehow something for the Veterans; local-education, alzheimer’s, homelessness, schizophrenia, & domesitc abuse related charities. And thinking about doing those things also goes along with the enjoyment/entertainment i am getting by dreaming of all the fun i’d have. for reals.

  41. I’d be fascinated to take the pro-lottery and anti-lottery factions and ask each if they consider themselves to be more typically savers or spenders. I’d be willing to bet that people who lean towards saving also lean away from the lottery.

    I’ve always been a saver. I bought an engagement ring with paper-route money that I started saving when I was eight.
    On the other hand, once savings for that month have been squirreled away I can easily drop $200 on a nice dinner. Like last week. Five courses at The Black Cat with paired wines. We’re talking multiple-toungasms.

  42. @Skepthink:

    Rather than get embroiled in this debate, I’m just going to give a big thumbs up to Catgirl’s response. If you equate working hard in order to become a specialized profession with paying one dollar and hoping you get millions in return, then I have no words for you.

  43. @davew: The lotto is definitely NOT my retirement plan. I have my contributions maxed out in my 401k, in addition to direct depositing another small chunk of my paycheck into savings(though the “rainy days” always come sooner than i expect). I could be using the lotto money as savings or even investing – but i’d make a bigger dent by re-designating other funds; say, all the $$$ that i give to the nice bartenders and waitresses in the neighborhood(hey! they gotta buy lotto tickets too, right?!). Whats my ROI on that do you s’pose?

  44. @guest1999: I remember reading that (based on NHTSA numbers from early 2000), the chance of being in a fatal accident (not necessarily your own death, just someone’s) driving 2 miles round trip buying a lottery ticket is almost exactly twice the chance of winning on a six number + one ticket.

  45. I contribute to the office pool.
    I do this out of fear. I have no illusion that I will win but I am more afraid of being the only person in the office who has to show up for work after everyone else won is more than I can bear.
    I make no claim to this fear being rational – just intimidating enough to make me hand over a dollar every time the collection is taken.

  46. People who buy lottery tickets knowing the odds are astronomical do so because that seems the most probably way of improving their lot in life.

    It’s not a tax on stupidity or poverty or greed. If anything it’s a tax on desperation and hope.

  47. @justncase80: “””Since the uneducated tend to make less, paying for lottery tickets (…) appears to break the rule that “the more you make the more you pay”.”””

    Exactly. And since it breaks that simple rule, it can’t be considered a tax, contrary to what catgirl’s father and others (I think you too) said, and as I effectively contended. You haven’t contradicted me but may have actually agreed with me against your own statements.

    “””How exactly does a belief that poorer people shouldn’t be the target of extra taxes imply, in any way, a lack of education?”””

    It’s very easy, look: insofar as you would be failing to understand the logic of the system in which the welfare of your society is based, you would be showing an utter lack of understanding about the way a country and its subunits work, which I take to amount to a lack of the most basic form of functional education.

    “””your astronaut metaphor seems very poor. (…) an investment in education or skills towards being an astronaut will yield positive results regardless of whether or not you achieve your original goal”””

    Exactly again. I already made this point myself in a previous message of mine, which is why now I wasn’t questioning the education itself (i.e. whether the child should go to school at all), but practical encouragement based on the ultimate outcome (i.e. whether it would become an astronaut or not), precisely to point out that the relatively low likelihood of an outcome does not necessarily make the goal undesirable (rather, it is often the contrary: the bigger the prize, the more the participants and the lesser the chances). In the case of lottery, you may not be becoming rich yourself, but you’re certainly helping somebody else to become so. Most people may only play because they think they’ll win and they won’t, but they’re still helping others to win and, through the taxes on the prizes, are also helping the whole society. It’s actually really powerful: by promising a ridiculous chance to win an immense reward, you get people contribute a large amount of their money after taxes, which you’ll be then able to tax. You get people to pay taxes WILLINGLY. That’s a masterpiece of psychology and I like it that way. Lottery is not a tax on the lack of education of people, but an investment on their lack of education.

    BTW, if you didn’t like my astronaut example, think of any other. Every time there’s an outcome 90% of the people won’t reach but that they pursue anyway and, while doing so, makes them good, they’re “playing lottery”, conceptually speaking.

    I won’t play lottery myself and I am not saying that there are not much better ways to use your money, but in some cases lottery would be a pretty rational solution (i.e. you’re starving and you’re offered either a banana in two years -when you’ll be effectively dead- or a 1/1,000,000 chance of getting a banana now, there’s not even a decision to make, you’ll choose the second option, out of rationality. For many people, getting the money in time may be key to their happiness, and they can’t really use it later, or won’t bother. Do you want to become rich when you’re 97 years old? Of course not and, if not, then you’re “playing lottery” because you will spend now money that otherwise you may have saved and may have turned into much more by then. Only, by then it won’t be of any value…

    As always, timing is essential.

  48. For these people who say the odds of winning are so astronomical that they refuse to play, answer me this:

    Is the infinitesimal chance of winning still not infinitely greater than the ZERO chance of winning if you do not play?

    And… is the utility of a non-zero chance at winning not greater than the utility of $1.00?

    And that, my friends, is why I play.

  49. @sporefrog: How much of “success” do you think is down hard work & application and how much down to the sheer blind luck of being born at the right time in the right place to the right parents who have the right income to put you into the right school, the right univeristy and pay for you to have the right internship in the right company with the right people where you can make the right connections.

    If you are born into the right circumstances, you’ve already matched 5 balls before the numbers are drawn.

  50. I don’t have a moral objection to gambling (it may not be the brightest thing to do, especially if your primary goal is profit, but, eh…) but I do have a problem with state lotteries in states that otherwise outlaw gambling, and I also feel that much of the advertising is somewhat predatory, and is in direct conflict with a government that is supposed to be for the better good of it’s people. When I was in school, I had worked for a couple weeks in a gas station/convenience store, and it was depressing to see the same people come in every week, and drop $20-$100 on scratch-offs in one purchase.

    Not to knock anyone being reasonable about it, just personally, I get more enjoyment out of a candy bar, a beer, or even a bit of duct tape…

  51. @Kahomono: The problem with your line of reasoning is that you are confusing the change in a probability with the probability itself (or, at least, focusing on the change only). The choice of playing gives you a chance of winning that is almost exactly zero. I can’t think offhand of any other endeavor in which P=0.000 001, or worse, is not considered effectively the same as P=0. Also, the percent increase in probability of winning if one plays versus if one does not play is not an infinite increase. The percent increase is undefined because it requires division by zero.

  52. Daydreaming is free. Why do you have to buy a lottery ticket in order to dream of being rich?

    Also @Kahomono: No it’s not infinitely greater. It’s only 0.0000000000000001 greater. And the utility of that is bugger all.

    I think perhaps a spatial representation is in order. Your chance of winning the lotto is something like 1 in 8,145,060. So say you want to halve those odds by buying 4072530 tickets/games. You now have a 50/50 chance of winning.

    How big is the average lotto ticket? Let’s say it is 10cm long and each ticket has six games or sets of numbers on it. Lined up on the ground your tickets would stretch for 67.8 kilometers. To illustrate that for you americans: that’s more than 3 times the length of manhattan. And that only gives you a 1 in 2 chance of winning.

  53. Skepthink wrote (comment 65):

    “BTW, if you didn’t like my astronaut example, think of any other. Every time there’s an outcome 90% of the people won’t reach but that they pursue anyway and, while doing so, makes them good, they’re “playing lottery”, conceptually speaking.”

    If you have a lottery that costs $1 to play, pays out in the $millions, and gives me a 10% chance of winning, I’ll play in a heartbeat. Your analogy is strained to the point of disintegrating, let alone to the point of breaking. Here is some gambling: I’ll bet that you can’t give me any evidence of a state/provincial/national lottery with a 10% payout rate. I suppose that you are trying to make your point about it being ok to throw money away on the lottery because the state uses the money for schools, etc. (by the way, isn’t it about $0.50 of every $1.00 spent that the state gets, the rest split between the few winners and the lottery company?). Money for schools is nice but the way lotteries are run is to target, as has been variously pointed out, the undereducated, poor, desperate, gullible, etc.

  54. I’m not sure I know which is more useless: wasting $1 or $5 or $10 or $100 a week playing the lottery, or “enjoying dreaming about what you’d do if you win.”

    They’re equally useless. I don’t do either, and mock those who do.

    You’re all a bunch of jerks.

    /not really.

  55. I’ve bought scratch off tickets a few times but i’ve never bought a ticket. I definitely have a detailed plan if I did win say $25 million.

    First I buy a house.
    Second I invest $5 Million in Long term investments. and $10 million in a basic savings account.
    I Donate about $5 million to various charities and NPO’s
    I then go crazy with whatever I have left to spend.

  56. @Finn McR: in that particular instance I wasn’t aiming at statistical accuracy, though I did a few lines below in the same comment (got distracted by the sunflowers?). In the 1/1,000,000 chances banana scenario, statistics still favor playing lottery. If you feel smart, I suggest you try hitting your head against that analogy first, and if so I may then feel some need to argue at all. Otherwise, your point was kind of lottery-like, if I may.

  57. I think the largest illogical assumption here is the idea that the “stupid and poor” play because they don’t know any better and can’t comprehend the basic math skills involved in figuring out the odds.

    I’m actually pretty shocked.

    Unfortunately there are the gambling addicts but the truth is most of the people playing the weekly lotto are *gasp* middle class and are perfectly aware of the fact that they aren’t going to win the big jackpot. It is simply a fun activity.

    What people consider acceptable risks is different for everyone and if we start going down the list of “not smart” “unneeded” purchases there wouldn’t be much enjoyment in anyone’s life. Personally I can’t possibly fathom why anyone would go spend $40,000 a new car, yet somehow I manage to not complain about their inability to plan their financial future.

  58. I’ve only bought a ticket a handful of times; mostly I just rely on my mum to win (one day) and give me a share.

    But my big irrational dream would be to win enough to do nothing but travel and study for a good long time.
    My more short term dream would be to win about $45,000 so that I can actually take up my place at Cambridge this year for grad school (just found out that I’m not getting a scholarship, and therefore can’t go. Boooooo.)

  59. In Ontario, the lotteries are run by a government organisation, and proceeds are returned to the community in a number of ways. The local curling club of which I am a member and on whose board of directors I sit just received about $80,000 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation for infrastructure upgrades to our aging facility. Those funds came from lottery proceeds. So, I will happily spend a buck or two on lottery tickets now and then.

    That being said, however, the real reason I play is the one outlined in Elyse’s post. I don’t expect to win, but I like to play the what if game, and I can’t really do that if I don’t have a ticket in my pocket.

    One of my favourite jokes relates the story of Abraham, an old man who has served the Lord faithfully for many years, and in his later years has begun to ask for something in return. “Please, Lord,” he prays, “show me a little favour, and let me win the lottery.” Once a year, every year on Yom Kippur he kneels down in the temple and utters the same prayer. “Please, Lord, show your humble servant Abraham a little favour. Let me win the lottery.” The years go by, and Abraham never wins the lottery. Then, one Yom Kippur, as he kneels in the temple, and utters his prayer, the thunder peals. The clouds part. A lone ray of sunlight beams through the temple window and illuminates Abraham where he kneels, and a great, booming voice rings out from above: “Schmuck, buy a ticket!”

  60. I have questions for the vociferous anti-lottery crowd. Now, while your mathematics is technically correct, I am nonetheless curious:

    1. When stuck in a bad thunder and lightning storm would you try to ensure you do not get stuck under a big tree?
    1b. Or would you, in an attempt to prove the math, go out of your way to find the biggest tree you could, and stubbornly stand there sprouting the leafy stats of how rare lightning strikes, even under big lovely trees really are?
    2. Do you make sure to not turn on/off a household lightswitch when your hands are a little bit wet?
    2a. Or do you patently splash your digits and frolic with the switches?
    3. Would you carefully avoid swimming in waters known to have occasional prowling sharks?
    4. Would you carefully avoid swimming in waters known to have occasional prowling sharks, with a small cut on your finger?

    Again, yes the math is technically correct; however, as has been said before, someone, or some small group of someones almost always wins big. And, given that most winners only buy a very small number of tickets, the odds of you winning are exactly equal to the odds of the individual who did win.

  61. Well, I guess I fall in the anti camp because the fun of the dream isn’t worth a buck to me, but I’m prochoice about it: if you like the dream, go for it.

    But I was thinking about lotteries and various other forms of magical thinking on the way home tonight and realized that in some ways voting shares similarities with a lottery. Just as you have a small chance of winning the lottery, so it is magical thinking to believe that you will, your vote has a small influence on the outcome of an election, so in some ways it’s magical thinking to believe that your vote makes a difference. I’m not sure how you’d compute the value of your vote (value of your candidate winning/# of votes difference between the candidates?), but it’s probably not worth the time and gas spent on getting to the polling place and waiting in line. Except maybe in Florida in 2000.

    Anyhow, voting is seen as a good thing to spend time and money on, but lottery tickets are seen as a bad thing. I’m just not sure a rational case can be made for the distinction, but I continue to vote while I don’t buy lottery tickets.

  62. @justncase80: How is that possible? As the value of the lottery increases doesn’t the value of your win decrease?
    Not really. Unless you are playing in an office pool most jackpots are won by single players. The other thing to think about is that the formula used to find expected value does not say how many plays it takes to reach break even.

  63. I’ve played the lottery a grand total of twice: a scratch ticket on my 18th birhtday, and two dollars worth of video poler (which I didn’t pay for) on my 21st. I just don’t get any entertainment out of gambling when I can’t control the outcome and the are are against me.

    That said, I’m not exactly sure what I’d do with jackpot level money, but it might start with a craigslist ad: “Gaunt, pallid young multi-millionaire seeks vapid drunken freeloader(s?) for wild weekend. Must like strip-clubs, French cuisine, three-ways, and feigning interest in Babylon 5”

  64. @catgirl:
    While I understand your point of view, if you play something with the understanding that you’re going to lose, it allows you to enjoy it more. The person who doesn’t have fun with gambling of any kind is the person who assumes they are going to win, and are in a position were they need to win. I enjoy playing, it’s worth the dollar, even though I’ll lose, still fun.

  65. @Skepthink:

    Skepthink is apparently not familiar with game theory or the concept of “expected cost.” If the cost to play a lottery ticket is $1.00, then the expected cost is $1.00 (to any reasonable approximation). Skepthink does not understand statistics. Anyone who would blindly follow Skepthink’s advice without doing at least cursory study of statistics is doing her/himself a disservice.

  66. SciPreFix wrote (comment 80):
    “Again, yes the math is technically correct; however, as has been said before, someone, or some small group of someones almost always wins big. And, given that most winners only buy a very small number of tickets, the odds of you winning are exactly equal to the odds of the individual who did win.”

    Two points: First, the almost in someone almost always wins is both important, and possibly incorrect (in the frame-work of the more common multi-state, U.S. “mega-millions” type lotteries, i.e., the pick-six plus “powerball” or whatever). In those types of lotteries, it is not certain that anyone will win in a given drawing. The way that those types of lotteries accrue into the hundreds of millions of dollars is precisely that over the course of multiple drawings, no-one has won the big jackpot.

    Second, there is a rampant tendency here to distort the likelihood of one-in-a-million or less chances to occur. It is true (and important for a skeptic to realize) that of all the hundreds of millions of things that could be described as one-in-a-million chances, many should be expected to occur. However, you can’t know, or expect to be able to predict before hand which of those things should occur. Anyone who feels like they should follow up with a post about “well, you know, there is *some* chance of winning.” should first look up cause-of-death statistics, failure rates of mechanical or electrical devices, etc. to get a sense of what ridiculously long odds are involved in wining a huge lottery payout.

    In minor defense of lottery players (my threshold for when one should consider playing is a jackpot payout of at least $200M, based on back-of-the-envelope calculations) is that there are minor payouts below the jackpot threshold. I doubt, but don’t know, that they would make a big difference in the expected cost calculations.

  67. @MathMike: I have not run the numbers, but I expect that the chance of multiple, independent winners due to a greatly expanded player pool (when the payout gets huge) is not significantly offset by the extremely long odds against each individual player winning. Is this what you mean?

  68. @SicPreFix: It’s all about risk vs reward. With the lotto, the reward is huge, and the risk, while small in dollar value, is extremely likely to happen. Let’s face it, you are going to lose.

    Standing under a tree during a lightning storm has a high risk but absolutely no reward whatsoever, so why would we do it?

    Incidentally, the odds of getting hit by lightening are also waaaaay higher than winning the lotto. 1 in 10,456 to be exact.

  69. @The 327th Male:

    Winning tens of millions of dollars, and even the minimal possibility thereof, is WAY more fun than getting hit by an electrified fiery tree. But if you’re in a storm, a giant tree can and will keep you from getting wet… and can block debris that’s blowing at you.

    I’d rather stay inside my house during a storm and check my lotto numbers from a dry laptop, though.

  70. @Skepthink: Give an example of a “mega-millions” type lottery and the expected cost. I want to see how your numbers show a significant difference of $1.00 to play and $1.00 expected cost. If your example is realistic and accurate, then I will apologize and concede the point.

    Also, you have a problem with the vernacular long odds? Then how about low probability of success? Is that smart-arsed enough?

    If you want to play the lottery, play every chance you get. If you want to sell lottery playing as a public good, then state your case and let it ride (I think that you have).

    I will reside in the camp of those who suggest that one can think of all the things that one would do with a huge lottery win (or other sudden windfall of cash for that matter) without paying a lottery company to collect my voluntary, incidental contribution to the state coffers. I prefer to pay my taxes right to the state.

  71. Apparently, the state and player’s do pretty well out of lotteries. This is a tiny example, but according to the Virginia Lottery Website:
    32.5% of total sales went to public education,
    56.6% was paid out in prizes,
    5.6% was paid to retailers (of tickets), and
    5.3% was paid in “operational” expenses.

    So there you go. Play away. You are supporting the schools and other people with your various ticket purchases (VA lottery includes “scratchers” as well as the big-money lotteries).

  72. Damn you I’m not getting any work done as I can’t stop thinking about this issue. Here is another description that might get the message across:

    “You enter a small room with a blindfold on your eyes, and this room contains all the residential phone books in the country. Now while blindfolded pick up a phone book, open it up to a page, and point to your name and phone number in the book.

    That is the odds of winning the Mega Millions lottery; actually the phone book method is easier by a 100 million or so.”

    from here: http://www.helium.com/items/292161-your-real-chances-of-winning-the-lottery

  73. Pardon, Master Shakespeare…

    What say you, sirrah?

    Master, an infinite number of monkeys in the next chamber, monkeys that haveth ink-stained hands, hath passed me this note…

    It sayeth, “Now is a good time for new beginnings. Your lucky numbers are 12, 23, 35, 37, 40, and powerball 16.”

  74. @Finn McR: “””Also, you have a problem with the vernacular long odds? Then how about low probability of success? Is that smart-arsed enough?”””

    Those are three very different questions with three equally different answers. Respectively: for the first and second questions, if you ask me, then yes I have a problem and yes your proposal in the second sentence is obviously to be preferred, if only because it gets 2,290,000 hits against 61,900 for your “vernacular” use (that’s 37 to 1, you should give it up lottery-speaking). However, you may like to know that you weren’t so wrong about this as I initially thought, so sorry for the pedantic remark, I will gladly swallow my pride on this one. Which takes me to the third question: no, for me it’s rarely ever smart-arsed enough (as just proven).

    As for “””Give an example of a “mega-millions” type lottery (…) to see how your numbers show a significant difference of $1.00 to play and $1.00 expected cost”””, today I don’t feel like proving a statistical impossibility, so excuse me if I decline. However, I am not even sure I have stated what you attribute me. Can you meaningfully link any of my statements to your objections relative to expected cost? I fail to see the connection, other than pure statistical theory, which I haven’t even begun to discuss because, like SicPreFix, I do think the mathematical case is compelling here against lottery. On the naturalistic side, however, and even if the probability for any particular individual to win is negligible, the combined probability is still 1 (or else, jackpot), which amounts to certainty. When playing lottery, why to focus on the low probability for you to win rather than the fact that somebody always wins? Is there any compelling reason why I shouldn’t roll a die because I am as likely to get a 1 as a 6? Isn’t getting some number the whole point of rolling the dice?

    As far as probability has to do with uncertainty, then playing the lottery is no less rational than any higher 1/2 bet; any given outcome for the former is certainly orders of magnitude ridiculously less probable than any outcome for the latter, but it has the same amount of logic to it, namely, none, because you’re guessing either way.

    So, I can’t see why people playing lottery are supposed to be more stupid than people playing any other game just because they play with a humongous die. I personally prefer maximizing certainty as much as possible, but whenever you can’t, randomness has the inevitable appeal of blind justice and gives you a feeling of control in the sense that there are no hidden variables and everybody is equally little likely to win. Thus, randomness is a form of equality (try asking for volunteers to wash the dishes and you’ll see how you end up rolling a die), and I think my grandma is as justified to buy lottery as my cousin is to risk his life doing some crazy thing he likes (even if the chances of getting hurt will actually be much higher than those of winning the lottery for my grandma). We simply like to beat the odds sometimes because, no matter how improbable, shit happens.

    If I was told “you can pay a dollar for 1/3,000,000,000 chances of being the only man ever to time-travel”, I would indeed pay the dollar.

  75. I agree, as I would be one of the ones living on skepchick island (tending to the skepchicks and making sure their glasses never get below half-empty). So even if the odds are stacked way against us, it is worth it (Sylvia Browne has better odds finding your kid than any of us winning the lottery).

    So as I channel the psychic mental powers of fallen mind-readers, I am told to play these numbers: 01 15 32 42 03 (01 for Rebecca being the first skepchick, 15 for her current skepchick writers, 32 for the current total of skepchick boobs, 42 because it is the answer, and 03 for a little P&T “magic” help).
    ~

  76. @The 327th Male et al.: My “infinitely greater” is the expression of the ratio, not the additive difference. And it’s considerably more reflective of the reality than your “0.0000000000000001 greater” which falsely states that the odds of winning are one in one quadrillion, and not ONE HUNDRED MILLION times better than that.

    But that’s OK, you give your agenda away when you tell me “the utility of that is bugger all” which means YOU have judged and think you know what MY utility of a non-zero chance at that kind of loot is. What’s plain is, you have taken an fundamentalist position on this issue and the mere fact of anyone buying a ticket pisses you All. The. Way. Off.

    BTW: Division by zero is “undefined” only in certain computer programming languages. Many areas of mathematics are more than happy to define it. And “infinity” is not at all uncommon as that definition, unless I dreamed my entire junior and senior years of college.

  77. @Skepthink: I know you’re not supposed to feed the trolls but…

    You said: “When playing lottery, why to focus on the low probability for you to win rather than the fact that somebody always wins?”

    Because I don’t care if someone else wins. I only care if I win.

    “…randomness has the inevitable appeal of blind justice and gives you a feeling of control”

    Randomness makes you feel in control? Is today opposite day? Why didn’t anyone tell me?

    “…and I think my grandma is as justified to buy lottery as my cousin is to risk his life doing some crazy thing he likes (even if the chances of getting hurt will actually be much higher than those of winning the lottery for my grandma).”

    No, she isn’t. It’s not about risk or reward, it’s about risk and reward. Your cousin gets the risk every time, but, presumably, he also gets the reward every time (motorcycles are fun). Sorry to break it to you but grandma is never going to win the lotto.

  78. @Kahomono: I love the way you tell me off for judging you, then proceed to tell me exactly what I am angry about, and then accuse me of being a fundamentalist.

    People buying lotto tickets don’t make me angry. Attempting to justify it with mathematics does.

    And you are right, I have unfairly judged your “utility” of a non-zero chance at winning. If that $1 is worth the momentary excitement of watching the barrel spin and hoping against the odds, then good luck to you. The problem I have is understanding where that excitement comes from.

    I once found $50 on the floor of a pub, and I got excited. But I don’t get excited every time I go into a pub, expecting that it might happen again.

  79. I would probably have to spend the amount of money I need to pay off my student loans and get a decent car and donate a briefcase full of $100 bills to Skepchick before I actually won the lottery.

    I also have to drive all the way to Colorado to buy lottery tickets because Wyoming doesn’t have a lottery. However, I have won $80 at the Wind River Casino if that’s helped me get any closer to the “dream”.

  80. I’m a bit ambivalent about the morality of lotteries in general, and I think we’d be better off without them. But as the song says “but betting has been in this world, since horses and greyhounds could run” (yes, I know there’s some difference between betting horses and playing the lottery).

    I do play the lottery though, paying for ten weeks at a time, not actually checking the drawings, just noticing when I renew whether or not I won anything over the past two months or so. So I’m not playing for the excitement of watching the draw. It’s more of a bad habit, and knowing that hey, I _could_ win.

    If I wasn’t otherwise frugal to a fault and thus had less money to spare, I probably wouldn’t play. And if I ever have kids, I’ll encourage them to put that money into savings instead.

  81. Yes, the chances of winning the lottery are almost non-existant*. They are exactly zero if you don’t buy a ticket, though. At least in WV, the profit goes towards supporting the schools, and we desperately need that in WV. The amount I spend annually on the lottery might buy a cup of coffee at “Fourbucks” (Starbucks), so the amount is trival.

    I figure that the morality of the lottery is already a non-issue, because they already exist and people that want to gamble will gamble on something whether there is a lottery or not. Therefore, it seems moot to me.

    I am very aware of the odds of winning, but I occasionally play when the jackpot gets ridiculously high (like eight or nine figures). My wife and I have discussed what we would do if we won, which would be to find a good lawyer, a good accountant, and a good financial planner.

    After that: we would both retire – we’re almost at that age anyway. We would move back close to our kids/grandkids, visit Skepchick Island occasionally ( ;-) ), fund our grandkid’s college educations, pay off our kid’s college bills, pay off our outstanding debt, etc.

    We would also invest in cutting-edge science/technology-based companies, green technology that shows promise, etc. We would also do some traveling, as I would like to see more of the world.
    I would support Sheltie Rescue very well, of course. :-)

    Personally, I would volunteer more time for various organizations like Habitat, etc. As a working person, I just don’t have enough time to support all the organizations I would like to support.

    * I’d like to see this on every lottery advertisement: “The chances of your winning this lottery are approximately the same as the chances of your being hit by a meteorite on your birthday while crossing the Sahara Dasert while being eaten by a Great White Shark that has AIDS. If not worse.
    In other words, as close to zero as is mathematically possible without actually being zero. Good luck, sucker!”

  82. The odds are ridiculously against me, because the only people who win in NY are in NYC, and I’m not. But every so often I get a “feeling” and buy a ticket anyway. And I never, ever, ever win. But I still dream. Oh yes, I dream. About my house addition (game room, bar, hot tub), about my ’57 Chevy, about my solar panels and wind turbine, about my greenhouse (and sexy swarthy greenskeeper), about my front porch, about new carpets, about new siding, about new windows, about a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t try to electrocute me… Ahhh, dreams.

  83. I don’t buy lottery tickets because I know the odds are so huge against me that it’d probably just turn into me wasting tens of valuable dollars a month on pointless daydreams. Plus, I think if I did play the lottery regularly, it’d trap me into wasting a lot of time pining away for the idea that I will suddenly come into a bunch of money and everything will be “okay”. I just don’t want to walk around thinking that way. Of course, like everyone, I do catch myself thinking “What WOULD I do?”

    I’d pay off my fiancee and I’s house, payoff my school loans, pay off any debt my fiancee owes, pay of any debt anyone else in my family has, buy myself a reasonable car, maybe move to a slightly better house, take a significant chunk of it and do something smart with it (I hesitate to say invest it given the way things are), donate large amounts to local charities/animal shelters/homeless shelters, etc. Maybe start a small cafe or restaurant in the 500-person town I live in (no businesses right now). Help beautify the city I live in…redo some of the old brick sidewalks, help improve the school/parks, etc.

    Of course, I say all this but who knows…I may not turn out to be so valiant if such a thing were to happen. I may get my hands on that 100 mill or whatever and just completely change and go nuts, driving through my small town in a bugatti veyron or something. I’d like to think I could stick to my noble intentions, but…who knows? Money can change people quickly.

  84. I don’t play, but I did get some scholarship money from NY state that is supposedly from the state lotto. Yay!

    Seriously though, I like cheap scratch offs for special occasions, they’re good card stuffers and you’re kind of buying “the dream”, but other than that I think it’s a waste of money.

  85. @MathMike:
    ” Unless you are playing in an office pool most jackpots are won by single players.”

    According to: http://www.at-la.com/lotto/info.htm#stats

    When there was a winner, the winning jackpot has been over $20 million about 15% of the time.

    The average number of winning ticket holders is 1.6 per jackpot.

    There is only one winning ticket holder about 64% of the time.

    This leads me to believe that the odds of being a single winner when the jackpot is over $45M is pretty slim, for every other winner you’re drastically decreasing your winnings.

    I’m just saying, if it was mathematically possible for the state to lose money on the lottery (e.g. a break even point existed) then they would lose money. What ever is most probable will happen over time but the state is raking it in hand over fist.

  86. @The 327th Male said:

    It’s all about risk vs reward. With the lotto, the reward is huge, and the risk, while small in dollar value, is extremely likely to happen.

    Yes, quite. However…

    Let’s face it, you are going to lose.

    No, it is not that absolute. Yes the probability of loss is high, but not absolute. I have in fact won over $1000 twice, and over $50 about six or seven times. And of course the countless meaningless wins of 1-5 dollars. Along with the even more countless total blowouts, of course.

    Standing under a tree during a lightning storm has a high risk but absolutely no reward whatsoever, so why would we do it?

    The reward, while low, is dryness and a false sense of security.

    Incidentally, the odds of getting hit by lightening are also waaaaay higher than winning the lotto….

    Good, thanks. I knew the odds were higher, I did not know they were that high (relatively speaking, of course ;) ).

  87. @justncase80:

    Your stats are specifically and only the California lottery though, aren’t they?

    And I am curioius if “one ticket holder” stat is for certain referring to only one ticket holder, as opposed to only one winning ticket. Those two are not the same thing, and would under some circumstances skew the results.

  88. @The 327th Male: “””I know you’re not supposed to feed the trolls but…”””

    … but you do it anyway because you trust the 1/1,000,000,000 chance that I may be interested in what you say, right? There you go, you just played the lottery.

    “””Because I don’t care if someone else wins. I only care if I win.”””

    As SicPreFix said, you have the same chances of winning as the actual winner. Would you be dissuaded from applying for a very good job just because there are many candidates and your chances of getting it are small? Most of the time, your brain will convince you that you have something else to offer than the others, probably erroneously, but that will justify what is simply a bet on your part, because you lack all relevant information until you have seen the outcome. Since you can’t make a rational decision anyway, it’s no less rational to try (it’s certainly less probable, but not less rational).

    As for my “…randomness has the inevitable appeal of blind justice and gives you a feeling of control”, why don’t you people read before you open your mouths? Just one line below: “because the chances of everybody are equally little”. Same chances amount to control because there are no hidden variables affecting the outcome (it can’t be e.g. that the other guy is smarter, faster, taller or has get laid with the judge the day before). Unless you think democracy doesn’t give people an equal chance to choose their government (which makes you be as in control as the most powerful person in the country), that’s what it’s all about. Have you heard of democracy? Education in this country concerns me.

    “””Sorry to break it to you but grandma is never going to win the lotto.”””

    That’s simply mathematically false. Want to try again?

  89. @SicPreFix:

    “Yes the probability of loss is high, but not absolute.”

    Over time it is absolute. What you will win is the sum of the total you put in and the probability of winning.

    So if you put in $1M over time, and your odds of winning are .001 say then your net will be 1M * .001. Betting money where the odds are known to be less than 50% you will absolutely lose (over time).

  90. @QuestionAuthority: I know you’re only kidding in your italicized point, but if that were to be taken remotely seriously, then we’d be tattooing on the back of every child born a warning that they will puke, shit their diapers, cry at all hours of the night, might grow up to be a stupid person, has no guarantee of living a productive life, and will eventually die, and whatever else you can think of printing on their skin.

  91. I gamble. In fact, I’m going to Vegas in 2 months and will get my fair share of craps and baccarat in, as well as other fun Vegas-y activities.

    Yes, it’s illogical and the odds aren’t in my favor. No, it’s not rational.

    But anyone who says they are rational 100% of the time is:

    a.) Lying.

    b.) Extremely boring.

    I haven’t specifically played the lottery but I imagine when the jackpot is up some day I might buy a ticket or two. I know I have basically no chance of winning but at least here in MN a chunk of the lottery goes back to environment and the state.

    I think part of the fun of it is doing something irrational. Just letting go every once in a while.

    If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. It’s that simple!

  92. I pretty much agree about a few dollars being worth the dream. It makes that day, or even those few hours just a little bit nicer. It’s almost like the anticipation you had as a little kid on xmas (or whatever gift exchange occasion you prefer) eve, even if you are inevitably disappointed.

    I know the odds are insane (I think 1 in 176 million for the mega millions) and this is what keeps me from playing all the time. I only play a few dollars IF the jackpot is over $100M. At that point, I really start to feel like it’s worth the dollar. It’s such a huge reward, I feel like i have to at least give myself some chance, as tiny as it is.

    Here is a really good illustration of just how hard it is to actually win one of these things. http://www.sleazysoft.com/megaslz/holycrap.php

  93. I don’t play, but my dad did for many years. Needless to say, he’s never won anything. He’s still got big dreams, but his new “get-rich-eventually” scheme is by inventing stuff. I think that’s a lot more likely to pan out.

  94. @Skepthink: Oh brother. Democracy gives you control because you can affect the outcome. You get to choose your candidate. It is not random.

    As for your “apply for a job” comparison, the same applies. You have control. You get to write your resume. You get to persuade them in the interview. You don’t have a random chance of getting the job – they don’t put all the resume’s into a hat and pick one at random. They pick the person based on their skills and their ability to do the job.

    In the lotto, you have absolutely no control of the outcome at all. You get to pick your numbers, but they don’t affect the outcome in any way. You have zero influence over the way the balls tumble. You have zero influence over which numbers come out. It is entirely random. You have zero control.

  95. Kahomono wrote (at comment 101):
    “BTW: Division by zero is “undefined” only in certain computer programming languages. Many areas of mathematics are more than happy to define it. And “infinity” is not at all uncommon as that definition, unless I dreamed my entire junior and senior years of college.”

    I think that I was dreaming through most of my last years of undergrad. However, being a mere engineering student, not a mathematician, I recall that the limit of y=x/a, as a approaches zero is infinity, but that the actual quantity of x/0 is, in fact, undefined. As I recall, this has something to do with the fact that the inverse relationship y=x*o is trivial, because it is true for any (y,x).

  96. @marilove: Perhaps you mostly know people who are neither stupid nor poor? If so, this would be a case of selection bias. You don’t know the majority (or, unless you are wildly social) even a tiny fraction of the people who play the lottery. Thus the comment is closer to anecdote than to a statement of fact about people who play the lottery. Now, as far as I know, people playing the lottery could be average or above average in either intelligence or education. That is not my sense, but my sense is obviously also biased.

    I’d also like to repeat that I would play a mega-millions-type lottery if the payout got high enough, even if the expected cost is still pretty bad (payout something like $200M US). However, I can still daydream about being suddenly fabulously wealthy (or even suddenly really well-off) without losing $1.

  97. Skepthink wrote (at comment 99):
    “On the naturalistic side, however, and even if the probability for any particular individual to win is negligible, the combined probability is still 1 (or else, jackpot), which amounts to certainty. ”

    I don’t know of any lottery in which the above statement is true. First, I am talking about the chance of winning the big jackpot, not the chance that at least one entrant will win some type of payout. For example: the Virginia lottery pays out $2 on a $1 ticket at 1:40 odds, $30 on a $1 ticket at 1:441 odds, etc. all on the same drawing. I could not find the stats for the jackpot payout (matching six plus one numbers). The stats for the second best prize ($52k per annum, paid out quarterly, for life) is 1:5,245,786.

    There is absolutely no guarantee that any payout will occur in any given drawing. Obviously, any reasonable expectation is that there will be a distribution of payouts on minor prizes, but the chance that one or more players will win the major payout–remember, this is the one on billboards, radio ads, etc.–is absolutely not p=1. The chance of a payout of the major prize is not 100%. The major prize is not guaranteed to be awarded for any given drawing. How many other ways does it need to be said?? The lottery sells the idea that someone always wins. If you know better than that and decide to play anyway, that’s perfectly ok. But I think that you all know that there are plenty of people that buy into the hype and spend more on the lottery than they would if they had a good idea of the real odds. (Maybe I’m wrong about that last; would not be the first time.)

  98. @The 327th Male: You must be joking: “””Democracy gives you control because you can affect the outcome.”””

    Your vote has a (1/voters) impact, which would be 1/many million in any normal democratic election. If that’s “affecting the outcome” as opposed to playing the lottery, then mega-millions is just rolling a die.

    “””As for your “apply for a job” comparison, the same applies. (…) You get to write your resume. You get to persuade them in the interview.”””

    That’s all irrelevant at the moment when you decide to apply for the job, which is what I was talking about. At the end of the day, they may not like your resume and they may think you’re an asshole after the interview, it simply doesn’t matter. The only important thing is, you’re making a guess because you don’t know shit about the other candidates and, therefore, you’re just rolling a die on the assumption that your skills will be better than those of any other candidate (which is in itself a pretty strong assumption).

    “””In the lotto, you have absolutely no control of the outcome at all. You get to pick your numbers, but they don’t affect the outcome in any way.”””

    So that you realize how you contradict yourself, this last statement opposes your own view of democracy as control, since you also get to pick the vote, but the vote does not substantially affect the outcome in any way (I obviously disagree, but that was your view).

    “””You have zero control.”””

    So the same for voting. But you do vote, right? So what?

  99. @Finn McR: “””I don’t know of any lottery in which the above statement is true (…) The major prize is not guaranteed to be awarded for any given drawing.”””

    Again, I don’t think I’ve talked at any given point of the major prize as opposed to minor prizes (I’m kind of tired of refuting things I haven’t said). I just talked about the fact of winning or not, in the abstract, to keep things simple, because it seems that’s already unlikely enough and because that’s already an important point of contention. You say you don’t want to consider the possibility that there are several prizes, probably because that would ruin your point based on improbability, and for the same reason I don’t give a damn about whether it’s the super-jackpot, uber-jackpot or whatever, I just talk about winning to maximize chances of that happening and make my point. You talk about ONE single victory to favor your statistics, and I consider a rather broad concept of victory (e.g. in which a first prize is always awarded and you don’t get jackpots, etc.) because that favors my numbers. So, we’re talking in parallel, you’re refuting things I don’t say and I simply can’t refute your numbers for those, which in fact I’ve never intended to.

    So, coming back to what I was saying: given a scenario in which there’s always a winner (which I think is the general case anyway), the probability of there being a winner is 1 (no matter how little the probability that there is a winner who also turns out to be person number 1,020,419). Therefore, if people decide to focus on the 1 rather than the (1/whatever), it’s fine with me because they’re right, there’s always a winner, probability is one and it’s going to happen anyway, so it’s better if it happens to them.

    I am really curious to know what all these people talking about statistical impossibility would tell every single player: “You can’t win”, “You can’t win”, “You can’t win”, etc. Yet in the end ONE will win. Where’s the impossibility? Why are facts and outcomes getting confused with the statistics we use to estimate/approximate them when we don’t know them?

    I will agree to say that it’s very improbable (and maybe even “practically impossible”) for someone to win the lottery and that he would probably be better off spending his money in some other way, but I won’t agree to say that lottery is a tax for the uneducated, that it won’t happen (no matter how improbable for each individual, it’s inevitably going to happen) or that people are stupid because of agreeing to roll an enormous die for fun and to see what happens. Any Dungeons&Dragons player constantly rolls dice precisely to take chances because there’s something inherently interesting and fun about randomness. Lottery maximizes that part, probably to the point of absurdity, but still true to the fascination for what is surprising. And nothing more surprising than winning a 1/1,000,000,000 bet, so I understand that, even if I will probably never play. Anyway, I’ve run out of arguments. Feed on me!

  100. @Skepthink: Oh, please. I respect most of your comments, even if I disagree with them, but I’ve given an example of odds and payouts (if you want to discuss any more in particular, give examples). I already have indicated (comment 96) that, in the case of the Virginia Lottery, 56.6% of ticket sales were paid out in prizes for *all* prizes (minor prizes for mega-millions-type and “scratchers”).

    You either don’t understand that any given drawing does not produce a big winner (and if you want to quibble, give some kind of example) or refuse to admit that there is no guaranteed winner. As far as your argument goes, if any drawing pays out any prize, there is a winner. In my opinion, winning $2 on a $1 ticket compared to !!! Mega State Jackpot: $130,000,000!!! is not the same thing. If you are equating the two, then I certainly can’t debate with you any more. It’s like trying to reason with a young earth creationist, we are coming from two completely different world views. I think that mine is right (selling huge, almost unimaginable wealth on a single $1 ticket play) vs. yours is wrong (what is it? Hey,I Won $2, but not the other thirty-some times that I played, yipee, I’m a winner?). I don’t fundamentally understand your point, apparently. It can’t be to play the lottery because eventually you will win. This is clearly not true. Perhaps it is, “play the lottery because then you can indulge in a super-vicarious thrill of what you might do if you win, and if you lose, you are doing a public good.” I know that I am projecting thoughts attributed to you in the last statement. I don’t fundamentally disagree, if there is educated, informed consent. I believe that where you and I differ is in the perception (on my part) that the state lotteries are fundamentally geared toward getting money from people who don’t really understand that they are almost throwing their money away. Whereas, as I read it, you think that as long as what people are giving/donating/throwing away their money for is a general public good, then it does not matter how it is sold, or who it impacts.

    My particular interest is for people who give money to state lotteries to understand what they are doing.

  101. @Skepthink:
    “Any Dungeons&Dragons player constantly rolls dice precisely to take chances because there’s something inherently interesting and fun about randomness. ”

    P.S. #1 I know the geeky thrill of getting a good roll in AD&D, and I loved it. More specifically, I will remember a moment in a game of TMNT, After The Bomb, when a character of mine leapt to certain death into a pair of monsters to save a hang-dog NPC (literally a dog, if you are familiar with TMNT After the Bomb), only to score a crazy-improbable triplet of critical-hits. However, (sad skeptic hat on now), I should have expected that to happen many times over before winning a big lottery.

    P.S. #2 This is one of the most stimulating e-conversations that I’ve had in a while, so thanks for the interaction/contention.

  102. @Skepthink: Oh fsm. This is the last time I will respond to you. I’ll try and spell this out for you as simply as I possibly can.

    Zero is zero. Zero equals zero. Any other number does not equal zero.

    You have zero influence on the lotto results. Therefore you have no control.

    You have some influence on the election results. Therefore you have some control.

    You have a lot of influence on the outcome of any job applications you make. Therefore you have a lot of control.

    Capice?

    Your statement that the randomness of lotto gives you feeling of control is completely and utterly deranged.

  103. #@Finn McR: “””You either don’t understand that any given drawing does not produce a big winner (…) or refuse to admit that there is no guaranteed winner.”””

    Neither. Apparently out of my ignorance regarding lottery, I was incorrectly assuming some shade along the spectrum defined by the following two ends: a) either there is always (or virtually always, e.g. in each drawing) what can be reasonably considered a “big winner” or b) there is always a perhaps smaller winner but still a winner, because we also count smaller prizes in. I take my argument to be true on the basis of either of these assumptions, but if, as you’ve challenged, the scenarios that you describe are instead the case, then I suppose I must agree with you that playing the lottery makes even less sense. I still don’t see that it can be considered a statistical impossibility (I resist the idea of equating statistics to factual predictions), but I agree that it becomes enormously close to “divinity”, so to speak.

    This being said, the public service and thrill arguments still hold, the way I see it, and, our own assumptions aside, those are ultimately the ones I was concerned about.

    “””If you are equating the two, then I certainly can’t debate with you any more.”””

    I wasn’t equating the two, but you can’t debate with me any more anyway because I just agreed with you. F*** you :-D

    “””It’s like trying to reason with a young earth creationist”””

    The sentence *may* be true if the noun phrase was to be analyzed as “[young [earth creationist]]”, but is false otherwise.

    “””I don’t fundamentally understand your point, apparently. Perhaps it is, “play the lottery because then you can indulge in a super-vicarious thrill of what you might do if you win, and if you lose, you are doing a public good.” I know that I am projecting thoughts attributed to you in the last statement.”””

    You see? You almost stated my point better than I did :-D

    “””I don’t fundamentally disagree”””

    Now you tell me what we’ve been arguing about all this time!!! :-D

    “””I believe that where you and I differ is in the perception (on my part) that the state lotteries are fundamentally geared toward getting money from people who don’t really understand that they are almost throwing their money away.”””

    And I see that point, but I honestly believe I don’t have any more reason to question that possibility than you have to question the alternative possibility that they may be simply driven by the D&D thrill. Other than that, you’re making personal judgments on a scale at which they become extremely unreliable.

    “””My particular interest is for people who give money to state lotteries to understand what they are doing.”””

    What do you think? Do you think lottery players blindly and uninformedly believe that they are going to win every time they play, and get disappointed every time they lose, or are simply enjoying the feeling of beating the odds, without really caring about the actual possibility, or enjoying precisely as much unlikelihood as possible? Given the concept of game, I would naturally and objectively tend to choose the latter, until proven otherwise by a hypothetical fool :-D

    @Finn McR:

    “””P.S. #1 I know the geeky thrill of getting a good roll in AD&D, and I loved it. “””

    Now we’re talking :-D

    “””only to score a crazy-improbable triplet of critical-hits”””

    Lucky you. Never happened to me, but I indeed witnessed two consecutive 20/20 plus a 1-something, resulting in a terrifying critical blow leading to the instant dead of the monster (and almost of the whole campaign, actually! Our master thought that would never happen to him :-) ). To add insult to injury, it was an unarmed attack (a kick to the stomach). That was the mother of all kicks.

    “””However, (sad skeptic hat on now), I should have expected that to happen many times over before winning a big lottery.”””

    Still, you didn’t play to get the critical blow, but only to SEE IF you got it, just to be there in case it happened. And if it didn’t, you would have already had fun. So what? Do you feel more stupid because of that? Were you playing D&D only to get critical blows? No way.

    “””thanks for the interaction/contention.”””

    The same for me, though I am afraid I can’t really contribute much more. I would have to disagree again to start over, and after having agreed it would take a lot of effort to pretend again that I think the opposite ;-)

  104. My partner and I will occasionally play the lotto. I have several family members that play regularly and actually 3 of them have made large wins. Not the super duper jackpot but upwards of 150k. Personally I don’t have an issue with people playing the lotto in my state because it does have a charitable cause behind it, “Other than prizes, the largest percentages of revenue generated from the PA lottery goes to help older residents of the state. It funds mass transit for the elderly, low prescription drug cost programs and a variety of public community centers for seniors. The state of Pennsylvania is the only state that uses its lottery revenue to fund programs for the elderly.”

    I can support this cause with $1 investment a week or the odd $5 scratch and win card and that’s fine. At the same time my grandfather who plays finds a great amount of joy playing the simple scratch and win games. Even though he doesn’t win often it brings him happiness to have the thrill of the possibility and the activity of playing the game. Considering he lives by himself as an almost shut in what’s the cost compared to the joy and happiness it brings him?

  105. @Skepthink
    “@Ssteppe: I am curious as to how, if X buys a lottery ticket, then X has e.g. 1/1,000,000,000 chances of winning but no better chances than Y, who hasn’t bought it at all. Do all the math, please. Enlighten us.”
    I didn’t say that X has “no better chance” than Y. Skepotter said “infinitely better”, which is not the case mathematically.
    In a followup, Skepotter indicated it was meant as “a pun”(?), which I assume meant “not literally”, or “not mathematically”.

  106. Skepthink wrote (sorry, but still on the learning curve for a mobile decivice, at 135): Something along the line of having the vicarious AD&D experience of a low-proability outcome…

    Sadly, or not, I’ve spent way more on. AD&D accessories than I ever would on Lotteries, with
    no hope of monetary reward. So I suppose utter logic can go hang, but I have the sense of getting more hours of entertainment from AD&D than from fantasies of big lottery wins (we will have to agree to disagree about the counting of minor payouts). Still, old-fashioned RPG’s rock!

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