Americans Spend More On Lottery Tickets Than On Movies, Video Games, Music, Sports Tix And Books Combined

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who is investing so much money in a product that provides poor returns, but numerous studies show that lower-income people spend a much greater proportion of their earnings on lotteries than do wealthier people.  One figure suggests that households making less than $13,000 a year spend a full 9 percent of their income on lotteries.  This of course makes no sense – poor people should be the least willing to waste their hard-earned cash on games with such terrible odds of winning. (http://www.dailyfinance.com/2010/05/31/poor-people-spend-9-of-income-on-...).


Why bother?  Well, one answer is obvious enough and applies to just about everyone who plays.  For a buck (now $2 for Powerball) we have a cheap opportunity to daydream what could happen if we suddenly won millions of dollars.  But lotteries return 53 cents to the dollar.  So why are poor people irrationally buying tickets when the probability of winning is so slim?  One study by a team of Carnegie Mellon University behavioral economists (Haisley, Mostafa and Loewenstein) suggests it isn’t being poor but rather feeling poor that compels people to purchase lotto tickets.


By influencing participants’ perceptions of their relative wealth, the researchers found that people who felt poor bought almost two times as many lottery tickets as those who were made to feel more affluent.  Here’s how they did it:




  • Participants were asked to complete a survey that included an item on annual income.  One group was asked to provide its income on a scale that began at “less than $100,000” and went up from there in increments of $100,000.  It was designed so that most respondents would be in the lowest category and therefore feel poor. 


  • The other group, made to feel subjectively wealthier, was asked to report income on a scale that began with “less than $10,000” and increased in $10,000 increments.  Therefore most participants were in a middle or upper tier.


  • All participants were paid $5 for participating in the survey and given the chance to buy up to 5 $1 scratch-off lottery tickets.  The group who felt wealthier bought 0.67 tickets on average, compared with 1.27 tickets for the group who felt poor.


Lotteries essentially target and encourage lower-income individuals into a cycle that directly prevents them from improving their financial status and leverages their desire to escape poverty.  Yes, that’s a bit harsh, and yes, people have the right to make their own decisions.  Even bad ones…  Also, many people tend to significantly overestimate the odds of winning because we tend to assess the likelihood of an event occurring based on how frequently we hear about it happening.  The technical name for this is the Availability Heuristic, which means the more we hear about big winners in the press, the less uncommon a big payday begins to seem.  


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