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To play the lottery or not?

  1. Jul 22, 2010 #1
    Yes, probability gives you laughable chances at winning. However, what about all the stories where one person plays for the first time and hits a goldmine? Is it worth it to play occasionally? Often? Very seldom? Never? Thoughts anyone?
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  3. Jul 22, 2010 #2


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    Whether you play or not, your chances of winning are veeeery close to the same. So if you have more dollars than sense, sure why not?

    I think of it as a tax on people who are bad at math.
  4. Jul 22, 2010 #3
    Are you saying that there is absolutely no point? There will be a set of possible winners and loser, and among that set, a few will be picked. Therefore, is it pointless to include oneself in that set, seeing as you could never be picked if you never were part of the set to begin with?
  5. Jul 22, 2010 #4


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    What I mean is, the chance of winning is basically the same, whether you buy a ticket or not. That people get sucked into thinking "But it could be me this week!" is a sad sign that most people really, really don't understand statistics.
  6. Jul 22, 2010 #5
    I understand that. My only concern is that the return (if any) on lotteries is fair if you play very few times and win. If one does not win after a few times, then one should stop playing. There is very little work involved into playing the lottery, and therefore not all that much to lose, assuming you acknowledge that your money is lost. Is it still unwise to play? (This springs from a personal debate with someone, I'm trying to find rational counters for what that person might say.)
  7. Jul 22, 2010 #6


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    If you buy just a couple lottery tickets, the expected change in money afterward is going to be losing about a couple of bucks. There's no beginner's luck or just buy a couple to keep your losses low strategy that is going to make playing the lottery worth it from a dollars perspective.

    What people lose sight of is that a dollar really doesn't matter. If I lost a dollar right now my life would not change one bit. So why not spend that dollar giving myself a .00000000000001% chance of having a life-altering amount of money come my way? In this sense you can argue buying one or two lottery tickets makes sense
  8. Jul 22, 2010 #7
    Buying a lottery ticket once in a while just for fun only might be OK.

    The problem becomes with chronic gamblers who are hooked gambling. I know someone who used to spend $50 a week on lottery tickets. I was driving with him one time, and he told me to pull in the gas station. I thought he just wanted to get something to drink, or use the bathroom. But instead, he came back with a bundle of lottery tickets.
  9. Jul 22, 2010 #8
    With each lottery comes a story where one person plays and wins. So what.
  10. Jul 22, 2010 #9
    I actually just bought my first lottery ticket today, and this is coming from someone who never plays the lottery due to "statistics". Basically playing the lottery continuously every week is a bad move. However, when the jackpot gets to ridiculously high portions (50 million for supermax this Friday) than it would be worth it to play.

    Even if its statically improbable, $6 for a chance to win a double digit million dollar prize is worth it.
  11. Jul 22, 2010 #10
    As lisab said, its a tax on people who are bad at math and statistics.

    The monetary value of playing a game of chance is easy to calculate, for each instance of playing the game you multiply the amount you could win by the probability of winning and the amount you could lose by the probability of losing.

    Right now California's super lotto plus has a jackpot of 12,000,000 and the odds of winning are 1/41416353. So the monetary value of playing that game is : (12,000,000)*(1/41416353) + (-1)(41416352/41416353) ~ -0.71. So the game costs your 71 cents per play. There is no financial reason to play such a game, so you shouldn't think to play it for the chance of winning rather than the fun of playing. Of course the fun of playing is directly tied to the monetary value so, so there is no point in playing for the fun either. Its a thrill based off of a deception, a deception that is only possible is one is unable or unwilling to look at the math.

    Id rather do drugs personally. :devil:
  12. Jul 22, 2010 #11
    To expand a little further... Using that simple algebra to determine the monetary value of something is applicable to many things that are random like gambling. For example, warranties and insurance. Salesman wants to sell you an extended warranty on your phone? Think about how many times you have lost/broken your phone that would qualify for the extended warranty over the years. Multiply that probability by the money you would save with the warranty and add it to the cost of the warranty times the probability the phone doesnt break. Nearly every time you will see the answer is negative, that is you lost money by buying the warranty. Same thing with insurance, if you can get yourself capable of selfinsuring you will do better to payout to yourself (even if it is painful) rather than paying every month to an insurance company. For example, full coverage insurance on my car costs the same as the cars value every year. That means to be worth it I would have to expect to get my car stolen/totaled every year. Yea right! I self insure and get richer each and every month.

    That is how rich people actually get rich, by following the math rather than purposefully ignoring it for a thrill.
  13. Jul 22, 2010 #12


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    Everytime I think of lottery I remember how Giacomo Casanova used to make a killing selling those lottery tickets to all those idiots who would buy them :rofl:

    Truly, stupidity has evolved over the centuries into an international pasttime
  14. Jul 22, 2010 #13
    I enjoy a scratcher every once in a while. Maybe once every 2 months, but its just for yucks. I won $19 the first scratcher I played, and since I've won 4 dollars and a free ticket, in about 20 tickets bought in my lifetime (maybe less).
  15. Jul 22, 2010 #14


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    I think it all has to do with "worth it". If your quality of life takes a hit that is more than how much your quality of life would increase "multiplied" by the probability you will actually win the lottery, it's not worth it. Now to make such a consideration, you have to realize what that money could be used for! I remember hearing that the average american adult spends a couple hundred bucks on some form of gambling per year. Now, instead of throwing that money away, why not save it? That's easily tens of thousands of dollars saved over a lifetime that you actually get to use instead of the slim to nothing chance you might win the lottery, even if you played for decades!
  16. Jul 22, 2010 #15


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    I once programmed up an artificial neural network (in C++) to calculate "winning" lottery numbers based on my personal incorrect numbers.

    My premise (which I didn't take seriously myself, even at the time -- but I found amusing to tell people) was that "my picks are not just wrong, but so completely wrong, that there must be a correlation!"

    Each week I would buy a $1 lottery ticket, then later record the winning numbers for that week, once the actual winning numbers were drawn.

    Then I would train the neural network based on all my incorrect picks and all the corresponding winning numbers. The neural network always converged well. After training it would always predict the correct corresponding winning number set for any given previous incorrect pick. And each week I had a new data point for the training set, so I would retrain it weekly.

    The goal was that eventually, I would purchase a new 1$ lottery ticket as usual, enter it into the neural network, and let it predict the winning number set. Then I would go back and purchase a second lottery ticket using the predicted number set, before the drawing.

    Unfortunately, (and I suppose I should have known this) no matter how large the training set got, the neural network would always predict an exact copy of a set of previous winning numbers, no matter how random the inputs were. :frown: In other words, if my training set had 100 different "original pick"-"winning set" combinations, when put to the test it would seem to limit itself to predicting a "winning set" from one of only those 100. (And it trained itself to do this -- there was nothing in the algorithms that would explicitly force this behavior.) Eventually California changed the way it's lottery was played, and I stopped after that.

    But I don't consider any of it a waste of time or money. I wasn't actually expecting to win. It was more of an excuse to create and play around with an artificial neural network. That was fun. :smile: <I'm such a nerd sometimes>

    [Edit: the moral of the story is every time I see someone buying a lottery ticket, I figure they're testing out their artificial neural network.]
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2010
  17. Jul 22, 2010 #16
    The usual maths behind this always makes the strange assumption that one's gain by winning 10x is always 10 times higher than one's gain by winning x.

    For one, it can easily be shown that this is not true, say that you win more than you can spend in your entire life, if you win that, or 10 times at much, it makes no difference yes?

    Also, people are bad at fathoming large numbers, say I give you 10 EUR, you're like 'nice', say I give you 100 you're like 'cool' say I have you 1000 you're like 'Wow, awesome, just for nothing?'.

    Okay, say I give you 100 000 000, you're like 'WTF? OMFGZ!!!', if I give you a hundred times more than that, your reaction is about the same.

    And that's why you can't apply maths to this in general cases, because each individual's gain and loss is completely different with receiving and losing these numbers.
  18. Jul 23, 2010 #17


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    Perhaps there's some truth to that. But don't forget that in most lotteries the majority of the proceeds (after winnings) supplement funding for schools, education, etc. (And hopefully math education too. :tongue2:). So it's for a good cause (mostly).

    There are other ways to donate money too. But supplementing education funds isn't all that bad.
  19. Jul 23, 2010 #18
    Id rather avoid the self deception and donate to education directly. I actually donated $10 to a teacher this morning which is not something I normally do. Much better than buying 10 lottery tickets.
  20. Jul 23, 2010 #19
    So basically what you are saying is you programmed something to suffer from gamblers fallacy.
  21. Jul 23, 2010 #20


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    I just stumbled across this thread in a drunken stupor whilst trying to sniff out where Greg keeps his porn. I have therefore satisfied neither my curiosity nor my libido. In lieu of physical satisfaction, I will post herewith a saying that was popular in my crowd when 649 first gained existence: People who don't understand math buy lottery tickets.
  22. Jul 23, 2010 #21


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    Though they probably still buy the odd ticket - particularly when the pot reaches mega millions ..
  23. Jul 23, 2010 #22
    There are times when it is "smart" to play the lottery. You occasionally hear on the news of some state's lottery getting up to a huge jackpot. Using academic's example lets say the state lotto worked its way up to $350,000,000. His example then becomes (350,000,000)*(1/41416353) + (-1)(41416352/41416353) = +$7.45 per play :p. You can also use the formula to determine that that particular lottery starts to become profitable at a jackpot of ~82.8 million. If you want to be picky you can factor in the chances of splitting by finding out the number of players and assuming you can pick a random (non favored) number.

    I hear that diaganols, squares, and other patterns on the number picking sheet are immensly popular. If one of those numbers ever hits you'd likely be sharing with hundreds of people.
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2010
  24. Jul 23, 2010 #23
    I got an A in probability theory last semester, yet I occasionally play the lottery. I end up spending approximately 20 dollars per year on lottery tickets for the "big jackpot" games. In my budget book, I put that down in the "entertainment" category. It satisfies an emotional itch, it has nothing to do with being bad at math.

    I spend a lot more money on Keno at bars, around 200 per year. But once again, this isn't due to poor math skills. I understand that for every dollar I spend, my expected value is 67 cents. I do it for the social aspect and to satisfy that emotional itch.

    There are some people who play the lottery because they believe in "magical thinking." They believe that because they had a dream about a lottery number, that number will hit and they need to play it. Or if they saw a specific number on two different license plates that day, they should play that number. This isn't being bad at math, this is just being bad at reality.

    Then there are people completely without hope in their lives that play the lottery. They reason that even if they save up every penny they spend on the lottery, they'll STILL be poor and unable to ever retire. Lets take somebody who makes 1500 a month at age 50, with no savings. Lets say they spend 5 dollars a day on lottery tickets, which ends up being 150 per month. Lets furthermore assume they never hit anything for simplicity. If they had instead saved that 150 per month, they'd have an extra 1800 per year. By the time they're 70 years old, they would have been able to save up a grand total of 32,000 (assume they invest their money in something that exactly keeps up with inflation, so it's 32000 in "real dollars"), which enough to support them approximately 2 years in retirement. Since these people have no hope to retire, they are looking for any way "out" they can. No matter how unlikely hitting the lottery is, they feel that the odds of getting out of poverty through hard work and sacrifice is even less likely.

    To simply say it's a "tax on people who are bad at math" misses the reasons people play the lottery.
  25. Jul 23, 2010 #24


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    Lottery tickets are a $1 daydream. A lottery ticket is a Schrodinger's cat type of daydream in the sense that it isn't a loser until you actually check it. That means the daydream is available in your pocket for days, weeks, months (well, not too many months since you only have 6 months to claim your prize).

    A much better buy than a ticket to any of the Twilight series movies.

    And definitely a much better buy than drugs or alcohol, since, with those, you're actually spending money to damage your body. At least lottery tickets only destroy the cache of dollar bills sitting in your wallet.
  26. Jul 23, 2010 #25
    I feel it's not worth it to play it ever. Money's not everything even if you win. Lots of it comes with a price. Things happen to you when you suddenly become wealthy, sometimes bad things which aren't worth the money. I've seen stories where this happens: he gets rich, now the babes spot him on their radar, he hooks up with one, she's just in it for the money, then she and her boyfriend kill him and run off with the dough.
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