7/18/2005

Lotteries

I have a couple of theories of why people buy lottery tickets. Winning a jackpot is irrelevant; basically it will never happen. As an example, the odds of picking the 6-number winning 6/49 combination are about 1 in 14 million so that the return on investment is laughable, statistically speaking. An ex-colleague once said that you have a greater chance of someone finding a wad of $100 bills on the sidewalk, randomly walking into your office building, coming up to your floor, choosing your cubicle and handing you the cash. I don’t know how to accurately calculate the odds of his scenario coming to pass but it’s probably a reasonable comparison to make.

I am not concerning myself with the type of person who buys hundreds of dollars worth of lottery tickets every week. Those people are gamblers. I am not a gambler myself and serious gamblers mystify me. It appears to me that they are waging a self-declared battle against the cosmos, hoping that by sheer force of will they will coerce nature into violating its own laws. It is a wildly optimistic act.

I think that one reason people play lotteries is that it is essentially free. If someone were to hand out lottery tickets to passers-by for free, all but the most vehement lottery critics would take one. And why not, since it would cost them nothing. Well, what’s the difference between a dollar and nothing? A dollar, or two, is as close to free as makes no difference. It is a trivial price to pay for that much entertainment.

And I believe that entertainment is the other main reason that people buy lottery tickets. For a measly buck, you get to daydream and fantasize for a few days or a week about what you would do with the money you might win. Let’s say that you have such a fantasy 5 times in a week, for a minute or two or five while waiting for a green light, or rocking on a subway car when you are too tired to read, or amusing your brain while jogging. That’s 20 cents per fantasy. Let’s assume that the average duration of one of these fantasies is 2 minutes; that amounts to 20 cents for two minutes of fun. I have paid anywhere from $6 to $12 to see movies that did not deliver more than 10 minutes of enjoyment. No matter how you calculate it, as entertainment, lotteries are a bargain.

The fantasies that you have while waiting for a lottery draw can range far and wide. The most obvious are the imagined shopping sprees. You can buy yourself all kinds of toys in your mind: cars, boats, trips, homes, etc. It’s an endless list and it’s harmless fun.

There is the quit work fantasy, or at least quitting the current job. How many people do you think spend their days working at their dream job? I would be surprised if it’s more than one in ten thousand. The saddest quotes from lottery winners are from folks who win more money than they will ever reasonably need but say that they will continue going to work because they would go nuts at home sitting around doing nothing. As if grinding away at some job or vegetating in from of a television are the only two options in life. What a depressing failure of imagination that is.

It’s interesting to examine how big a jackpot we fantasize about. Do you want a huge $20 million payout or a more modest $250,000? There are advantages and disadvantages either way. With a really large win, you would be able to do almost anything you want, but you would have to face the dilemma of who to give some of it to. Unless you are a hermit, you have relatives and friends and there is some minimum jackpot amount above which they are going to expect you to give some away. I am not referring to the usual moochers who would come begging even if you only won a lousy hundred bucks. It would be a pleasure to tell them to get lost. No, the bigger concern is with people you like and respect, who would never dream of coveting the money that you had earned through hard work. But somehow, if the money drops on you from on high, you know that in the backs of their minds they will be thinking, “Hey, he wouldn’t miss $25,000”. It would be an all too human reaction. Winning an extremely large amount could affect some of your friendships, sad to say. Whereas, if you won a jackpot of only $250,000, you could acceptably choose to give none away, and hardly anyone would criticize you.

Assuming that you won enough to warrant giving some away, deciding on whom to give it can be a dilemma. Do you give everyone on your list the same amount? That hardly seems fair, but once you start giving more to some than to others, you are sowing the seeds of envy and jealousy. Family feuds have started with less. Are nephews worth more than cousins? Are in-laws worth anything? What do you do about friends or relations who may be in financial need and truly need a helping hand? And, if they were in a jam because of their own irresponsible behaviour, would simply giving them money help much? Should you give money away to people who don’t need it at all simply because they’re related to you or are good friends of yours? How would you draw the line between those who get something and those who get nothing? I have mentally debated these issues often and have discussed them with others too. It’s part and parcel of buying a lottery ticket, part of the entertainment. They are not trivial thoughts, by any means, but rather are fundamental introspections that reflect mightily on your character and self-image. Buying a lottery ticket can make you examine your soul. Did you think you were just trying to win some cash? An unexamined bet is no bet at all.

I occasionally see a television commercial for one of the Canadian lotteries in which an older couple have won a large jackpot and are shown giving the cottages next door as gifts to their two children. The three cottages are on the shore of a gorgeous pristine lake. Every time I see the ad I can’t help thinking that they would have been wiser to buy cottages for their kids on some other lake, at least an hour’s drive away. Once the relatives and in-laws sniff the cash those 3 cottages will be noisy zoos come summer.

My own long-held fantasy is that if I won a large amount I would give 10% of it away to someone deserving but unrelated to me, who happened to particularly need help at that time in their lives. I think of it as a way to achieve some balance in the universe, since I hadn’t earned the money. It would be an interesting moral test to see if I could hold myself to that promise once the dough was actually in my bank account.

Buying lottery tickets is very cheap entertainment. Actually winning a lottery could turn out to be a nightmare in comparison, but I am sure I would learn to adapt.

2 Comments:

At 9:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any type of human inclination or discretion (sin) is controlled by some genes. In the gambler's case (or lottery buyer), it can be attributed to the gene of GREED. Getting something for almost nothing is GREED. Entertainment (drawn from it) is simply a side effect. When viewed by others with a different set of genes, the behaviour is totaly ludicrous (imagine the odds)....

 
At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you take that two or three dollars in spare change and get a 649 ticket you are buying a couple of bucks worth of dream. You dream of what you will do with all that money. I have spent a few afternoons on the patio talking with my significate other about what we will do if we win. Then we chuckle, say it's nice to dream and get on with the day. I think some people have problems with Gambling like drinking but for the most part it is just a flash in the pan, a fleeting dream and has nothing to do with greed or sin.

 

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