Seeing as how I hang out with a bunch of hard-science types, prevailing opinion in my monkeysphere is that lotteries are a bad damn idea. The less authoritarian opinions usually lean towards annoyed exasperation at the Stupids — “lotteries are a tax on innumeracy”, and quite a regressive one at that — while the other side of the spectrum argues that lotteries are deliberate and malicious fraud against their participants. All sides agree that the expected value of a lotto ticket is far less than its purchase price, and being snobs we can also agree that the money spent would be better put toward a good book — or at the very least a thought-provoking art-house movie.
Well, the expected dollar value of a lotto ticket is far less than its purchase price. Cosma Shalizi points out that they aren’t meant as investment vehicles:
- A defense of lotteries (Three-Toed Sloth)
The benefit to playing the lottery comes entirely between buying the ticket, and when the winner is revealed. During this interval, someone who has bought the ticket can entertain the idea that they might win, and pleasantly imagine how much better their life could be with the money, what they would do with it, etc. It’s true that in some sense you always could just make yourself think about “what if I had $280 million?”, but many people find it very hard to get their imaginations going on sheer will-power. A plausible and concrete path to the riches, no matter how low the probability, serves as a hook on which to suspend disbelief. In this regard, indeed, lottery tickets are arguably quite cost-effective. If a $1 lottery ticket licenses even one hour of imagining a different life, I don’t see how people who spend $12 for two or three hours of such imagining at a movie theater, or $25 for ten hours at a bookstore, are in any position to talk.
…huh. De gustibus non disputandum est, and in this case art-house movies and ten-hour books are poor substitutes for people who prefer lotto-winning fantasy.
Incidentally, it’s amusing to think of entertainment in terms of d$/dt. A three hundred dollar bottle of single-malt scotch, divvied up into twenty-six drinks each savoured over the course of half an hour, starts to look like a bargain when held up to twelve-dollar tickets for a two-hour movie.