General Question

mattbrowne's avatar

Can playing the lottery draw people's focus away from pursuing realistic goals in their lives?

Asked by mattbrowne (31633points) May 21st, 2009


Clearly there is a demand for playing the lottery, and people seem to get something out of it; otherwise they wouldn’t keep playing. But it is well established that low income people spend a higher percentage of their income on the lottery than other income groups.

The finding from our first study, that when you make people feel poor they play more, is especially sad since playing the lottery is on average a massively losing proposition. The propensity of low income individuals to play the lottery has the perverse effect of exacerbating their poverty. Although there are no easy solutions to the problem, one obvious one would be to cease marketing and advertising that targets the poor. It probably makes sense for the state to sell lottery tickets, because otherwise they will be sold by organized crime. However, does it really make sense for the state to be inducing, through advertising, poor people to play who wouldn’t play in the absence of such inducement?

What about your thoughts about the lottery and gambling phenomena?

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14 Answers

cwilbur's avatar

I don’t know who said it first, but the lottery is a tax on people who don’t understand math.

On the other hand, if people didn’t get something out of it, they wouldn’t do it.

cookieman's avatar

I don’t play the lottery or gamble at all but…

Our corner store was very typical (snacks, ice cream, newspapers, scratch tickets) until they got their first keno screen.

Five years later they have dozens of scratch tickets, chance raffles, and five keno screens. One is in the window facing the parking lot. They converted the front half of the store into a parlor of sorts with ashtrays, tables, chairs and free coffee.

There are ten to twenty people in there at all times scratching away furiously at the tickets and staring balefully at the screens.

The place is now very dirty and whatever food items they have left look ancient.

Clearly the demand is there as he’s open until two AM and always full up.

mattbrowne's avatar

@cprevite – Yes, there’s a demand but what you’re describing looks more like a trap.

MrItty's avatar

The act of playing the lottery cannot draw people’s focus away, no.

The act of playing the lottery can be but one symptom of the problem of people not being focused on pursuing realistic goals. It’s not a cause-and-effect situation.

If I go to the store today and buy a lottery ticket, that will not, in and of itself, make me lack focus on real-world possibilities. On the other hand, a person who does lack real-world insights may purchase that lottery ticket as a symptom of their mindset, believing it to be a quick “out” for their financial burdens.

cookieman's avatar

@mattbrowne: That depends on your perspective on and predisposition toward gambling. It may be trap to someone who already “lacks real-world insights” (as @MrItty points out) but to me, it’s a deterrent – as I will not shop there anymore.

and I certainly won’t take my daughter in there

mattbrowne's avatar

@cprevite – Point taken!

dynamicduo's avatar

The lottery is simply a tax on people who can’t do math. If one invested the money they spent on tickets, of course they would end up much better off in the long run.

A book I mention here a lot”:“And-Politics-Fear-Dan-Gardner/9780771032998-item.html contains a chapter talking about such odds and how our brain can be tricked to ignore them. He illustrated with the marketing campaign here in Ontario: “Just imagine”, “What does your happy dance look like”, etc. These encourages people to imagine what their lives would be when winning, which dramatically increases the odds of them buying a ticket in hopes of winning.

But does it draw people’s focus away from realistic goals? I doubt it draws people away more than an idle daydream does, or a fantasy during the day. Of course there are the few people who will become hopelessly addicted to it, but it seems the government doesn’t care about them and of course I don’t either as it doesn’t affect me directly (indirectly it sure does, an aunt and her husband are hopeless lifetime gamblers, and it’s pathetic how their lives are turning out because of it).

As with all things, if we learn about how our primitive brains work and interpret information, we can then take steps to avoid being tricked by such things. Hence I don’t buy lottery tickets.

cwilbur's avatar

My parents bought lottery tickets for years. $5 every Saturday bought them a fantasy about escaping from bills and jobs—they were jobs they loved, but still, they have annoying bits. I think $1—$5 is a reasonable amount to pay for that kind of a fantasy.

But we were in a situation where $1—$5 of frivolous spending a week didn’t break the bank. They weren’t spending $100+ on scratch tickets, or giving up food or sleep to play the lottery. And they definitely spent the bulk of their time pursuing realistic goals.

dalepetrie's avatar

When you buy a lottery ticket, what you are buying is a chance…a chance to come away with more money than you started with. The more you could potentially win, the less likely you are to win it. Basically the lottery, just like any gambling, is a rush…in fact it’s really no different than any other vice (if you want to call it a vice) or for that matter any other hobby. It can be an experience, in fact for some, it’s nothing more than a source of entertainment. The money I might spend going to a concert for example, for a set amount of time, I get an experience, and once it’s done, it’s done. Let’s say I spent $100 on a concert ticket for a show that lasted 2 1/2 hours. Well, someone could buy 100 scratch offs, win some of it back, reinvest it, win some of that back and so on until they lost the whole $100, and they’d probably have 2 1/2 hours of entertainment scratching off those tickets. Or they could spend a few hours in a casino. Or they could spend it at the bar. Or they could spend it on cigarettes, or drugs, or they could buy DVDs and CDs with it, or whatever.

My point is, there are a myriad of ways we can spend our money on things that don’t feed us, clothe us or shelter us, or make us better people per se. Giving people an opportunity to spend their money on things they don’t need…you could say that’s the American way (aka capitalism). But think back to before you had a lottery in your state (we got ours 20 years ago), if you can remember back that far. When I was growing up (and my wife had the same experience), looking at the adults around me, it didn’t matter if they were unemployed and having a hard time paying the bills, there was always money for beer and cigarettes. That’s an addiction, and gambling can be the very same thing. But I never expected the government to step in and say “we’re not going to sell beer and cigarettes because some people can’t afford them but buy them anyway.” And the thing about addicts is, you can’t get them to seek help unless they’re ready to admit they have a problem…and if they see themselves as just having fun, then they’re not going to see it as a problem. Addiction is a disease, no matter what you’re addicted to, but ANYTHING, and I mean ANYTHING enjoyable can be addictive to somebody. At what point would you want us to say this is addictive to a large enough number of people that NO ONE can partake?

I have my addictions…food…particularly sweets. I’m far heavier than I ought to be, and I’m diabetic, and I try to avoid foods I shouldn’t eat, but I crave them, I enjoy them greatly, and I ahve to realize that if I eat candy, I’m potentially harming myself…yet, I still eat candy. I’m not going to say that candy should be illegal because I can’t control myself around it. That wouldn’t be fair to the people I know who are healthy and like to eat candy but whose appetites aren’t stronger than their bodies. But look at alcohol…I like to have a glass of wine every now and then, maybe a couple of mixed drinks here and there…even an occassional beer. I probably on average have about 5 alcoholic beverages a month…I enjoy them when I have them, I don’t overdo it. By look at my dad who drinks whiskey all day every day, or my brother in law who will drop $100 a week at the bar, even though his only source of income is a part time job at Walgreens. They can’t handle alcohol, but does that mean I shouldn’t ever be able to drink? And gambling…my parents LOVE to spend time in casinos…if they go on vacation they will hit every casino on the path. They probably visit casinos 100 times or more a year…and they can afford to do it…when they couldn’t afford to do it, they didn’t go as often. I suspect they have an addiction, but theirs hasn’t gotten out of hand in terms of what they can afford. I like to go a couple times a year, and some times I win (never more than a couple hundred dollars) and some times I lose (never more than I can afford, usually less than 100 dollars) and that’s enough for me. But I’ll see people taking 2 slot machines at a time, throwing $10 a bet in each one every 5 seconds, then I’ll hear stories about people who’ve embezzled over a million dollars from their employers and blown it at these same casinos. Yeah, I see people who can’t afford it buying 20 scratch offs at a time just about every time I go to the gas station.

But you know what? Just like they put warnings on cigarettes that no one who smokes ever reads, there are usually brochures at the counter where you can buy scratch offs telling you where you can get help. If the Powerball goes over $200M, they start to run ads saying to gamble responsibly. They put the help there for IF you need it, but neither taking away the opportunity to do the activity, nor trying to force an anti gambling message down their throats is the right choice. Even if you were to make a case that my enjoyment of the occasional scratch off ticket (I buy maybe 5 or 10 dollars worth a year on whims and maybe half that many Powerball tickets) isn’t worth allowing people who can’t afford it access to gambling, well what about Vegas? What about the poker or dice game they can hook up with their buddies?

It’s a simple fact that you can’t legislate vices, that’s why prohibition failed and that’s why nearly half of Americans report having tried marijuana even though it’s illegal. What we can do as a society is expect people to take personal responsibility for their own finances, we can offer them help if they’ll take it, and we can lament that some people just never make the responsible choice, but we have to look inside ourselves and ask ourselves really, have you NEVER spent money on something you really wanted but couldn’t really afford….really?

In short, to answer the question, can playing the lottery pull peoples’ focus away from the important things in life, the answer is yes and no….yes, because any enjoyable activity is inherently a distraction from the things you should be spending your mental energy on, and no because if you’re a responsible person who is not addicted to that activity, you will be able to juggle both, and therefore it is really the addiction coupled with a lack of personal responsibility that can drive your focus away from that which is really important.

DeanV's avatar

You mean like in 1984?

hungryhungryhortence's avatar

Like anything taken to distraction, extreme or addiction, the lottery can be harmful. I personally don’t know anyone who’s done that though. I see more harm in the commercialization of poker playing to the point it’s now considered a sport to be televised and a social status hobby like Golf. Where I live, you’re not hip if you don’t Golf, play poker in the casinos and know the latest drink concoctions being offered by test tube in the high door cover clubs.

dalepetrie's avatar

@hungryhungryhortence – a much more succinct way of saying what I did…everything in moderation.

I don’t necessarily agree with a tax on stupid people or people who can’t do math,’s a cute, clever quip, but most he people I know who gamble at all know the odds are against them. If you play expecting to win, that’s one thing, most people play hoping to win but not expecting to. Because even when the odds against winning are astronomical, you can’t win at all if you don’t play. And if you can balance those two truths, you’re fine. But if you are the type who says “I’m going to spend this much, no more,” but then you win nothing and you start to tell yourself, “eh, what’s another $20, and hey, I can’t win my money back if I don’t play), then you can dig yourself in a pretty big hole pretty quickly. If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t do it.

Good example, I was at a gas station yesterday, I saw the powerball jackpot was $176M, and for the first time in probably 6 months, I spent a dollar on a ticket, even though I’m currently unemployed, because one dollar isn’t going to make any difference in my life at this point. I know that having a higher jackpot does absolutely nothing to my chances of winning. I know that my odds of even winning my money back are something like 1 in 7, and I know that my odds of getting hit by lightning are several times greater than of winning that jackpot. I don’t expect to win even my dollar back. But I could. But what that dollar bought me was license to dream about what I would do with that money. At a time when all I’m thinking about 99.9% of the time is getting the bills paid, it’s nice to have that .1% of the time where I can dream about not having to worry about it. Now, if I spent hours daydreaming and never got any jobs applied for because I was too busy planning my “what if” life, that would be one thing. but it’s just nice because I can think to myself, I have that ticket in my wallet…it’s probably worthless, but it could be worth something, possibly more then just something. And it’s a good feeling, worth a dollar to me, but it’s not going to keep me from focusing on the important things. Truth be told though, the drawing was last night and I haven’t checked my ticket yet…because whether I won or lost, and I can be almost certain that I lost, I know that from the odds because I DO understand math, once I check it and confirm that, I no longer have any value from that dollar, it goes from a dream to a dashed dream.

I know that there are people who think they have a “system” who spend tons of money and watch the drawing with baited breath, and that’s a shame. If anything, I think this is more a failing of our school system…I think every child in America should be taught about odds and probability, and about how to create a home budget. But perhaps as long as we don’t (and let’s face if, if you lack self-discipline and a sense of responsibility, a class ain’t gonna help you), maybe this is economic natural selction at work.

hungryhungryhortence's avatar

@dalepetrie: thanks, I try to be of some use now and then

cletrans2col's avatar

A tax is something that you have to pay; you do not have to buy a lottery ticket.

The lottery is a game of chance and if you want to take that chance, go ahead. People have won, and you or I may win in the future.

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