Is the Lottery a Rational Game?


In a lotto, numbered tickets are sold for a prize that is drawn at random. The numbers can be purchased individually, or as a group, and the winnings may be shared among the players, or consolidated into a lump sum to be paid to the winner. Lotteries are a common method of raising funds for public and private projects, as well as a source of entertainment.

People play lottery games because they want to win the jackpot, and there’s an inextricable human impulse to gamble. But there’s also something else going on here: Lotteries are dangling a promise of instant wealth in an era of income inequality and limited social mobility.

A state-run game in which participants purchase tickets and have a chance to win a prize, especially by drawing particular numbers. A lottery may be operated by a government agency, a quasi-government organization, or a private company licensed by a state. A lottery may be played as an alternative to traditional taxation or as a supplement to other revenue sources.

Several states held lottery-like games in the 17th century, and Benjamin Franklin sponsored one to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson tried to hold a lottery to pay off his crushing debts but failed.

Whether lottery plays are rational depends on the expected utility for the individual, which includes both the monetary and non-monetary benefits. If the entertainment value of playing is high enough for an individual, the disutility of a monetary loss will be outweighed by the cumulative expected utility of monetary and non-monetary gains. Moreover, the fact that the lottery appears to be unbiased is a strong indication that it really is.