Why do so many Americans knowingly throw more than $60 billion a year on something that is next to impossible to win? It is a question that has confounded me for quite some time and one that is not easily answerable. The odds of winning the lottery are about 1 in 175,000,000. To put this number in perspective, you have a greater chance of being elected President of the United States (1 in 10 million), getting crushed by a vending machine (1 in 112 million), dying in a terrorist attack (1 in 25 million), and having identical quadruplets (1 in 15 million), than you do of winning the lottery. Regardless of these tremendous odds, we still spend billions of dollars each year because we just can't help it.
So why can't we help ourselves? What is it about the prospect of winning millions of dollars, no matter the odds, that keeps us literally throwing billions of dollars away year in and year out? It doesn't seem to matter how many studies there are that show how poor of an investment playing the lottery is, because we keep convince ourselves that it may have been us with that big cardboard check in our hands if we hadn't sat that one out. Robert Williams, a professor who specializes in health sciences at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, says "it’s just beyond our experience—we have nothing in our evolutionary history that prepares us or primes us, no intellectual architecture, to try and grasp the remoteness of those odds.” Williams is basically saying that certain things are beyond our minds ability to process, so we block out all logical thought and continue to spend, and spend, and spend.
One of the saddest statistics about the lottery is how much it disproportionally affects the poor. A family making $15,000 a year spends between 3 and 9 percent of their income on 'games of chance,' which is basically used as a regressive tax on the poorest among us. This is especially true for people of color, who tend to spend far more of their income on lotteries than Caucasians. Regardless of your color, one statistic is true across the board: those who make less money spend far more of their incomes on the lottery than more well off people.
We will never see a day where the lottery is done away with, but we can begin to educate people about the odds of winning and how an individual can play responsibly. Buying one ticket a week for fun is one thing, but spending much of your disposable income on something you have next to zero chance of winning is another.