National lotteries – bad for winners, bad for society?

The odds of winning are almost nil and winners tend to be no happier

People queing to play the Lotto in the St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre in Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke.

People queing to play the Lotto in the St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre in Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke.


More than half the population played National Lottery games on a regular basis last year, but in reality there is almost no probability of winning big.

The odds of winning the Lotto are one in 8,145,060. Winning the EuroMillions is even more of a long shot, at one in 116,531,800.

With such unfavourable odds, why do people keep playing?

One reason is that the improbability of winning the lottery is easily ignored. Or, rather, it is not easily understood.

Studies have shown that people find it difficult to think about probabilities, particularly when the numbers are extreme.

People routinely overestimate rare events such as winning the lottery, according to Dr Luke Clark, director of the centre for gambling research at the University of British Columbia.

“They think they have a better chance of winning than they actually do,” he says, adding that highly visible winners in the media are a contributing factor. “The lowest probability they can come up with is still something. It’s not zero.”

This cognitive inclination towards hope might be one reason why the National Lottery posted overall sales of €685.2 million in 2013.

Another reason might be the “psychology of entrapment”. If someone plays the lottery and chooses the same numbers every week, missing a week is a stressful thought. Anticipated regret becomes a reason to keep playing, says Dr Clark.

Good for society?

Ireland has one of the world’s highest participation rates in national lottery games. Sixty-two per cent of adults played on a regular basis last year, according to the National Lottery’s 2013 annual report, but there is an ongoing debate about whether a State-sanctioned lottery is good for society at large.

Studies have shown that people in lower socioeconomic classes are more likely to play the lottery and spend significant amounts of income doing it.

And while about a third of lottery sales go to good causes, another concern is whether the lottery has become a fund politicians can allocate however they choose, with little transparency.

With the National Lottery now licensed to private company Premier Lotteries Ireland, it remains to be seen whether transparency will continue to diminish.

Would the legions of optimists out there actually be better off if they won?

Happiness levels

In a much-cited paper from the 1970s, Dr Philip Brickman and his co-authors studied the happiness levels of a group of lottery winners and a control group of non-winners. They asked how happy the participants felt about 10 everyday pleasures like hearing a good joke.

It turned out winners were no happier than non-winners and got significantly less satisfaction out of day-to-day pleasures.

The team also surveyed a third group of paraplegics and found their happiness levels were slightly lower than the lottery winners, but the difference was surprisingly small.

Dr Luke Clark says that is because people adapt to change. All winners are initially euphoric, but after time they calibrate back to their pre-win level of happiness or unhappiness.

“Things that most people find fun – hearing a joke or eating a nice bacon sandwich – lotto winners have habituated to everything so they don’t enjoy anything as much. You would have to pity them,” says Dr Clark.

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