Why does anyone bother playing the lottery?

This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald Sun


WHY does anyone bothering playing the lottery? Well, the quick answer is because it’s fun, although winning is virtually impossible. For example, I’ve never come close to winning. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this article. I’d be looking for the right colour yacht to match my private jet, transformer car and team of mechanical wonder-monkeys.

So just how unlikely is it that you or me or anyone will win the lottery? In Australia, the odds of winning a recent $15 million Powerball were about 77 million to one. Which is far better than Powerball in the USA, where the odds of any single ticket taking out the jackpot are one in 292.2 million.


Still, compare either of those to the odds of being struck by lightning at one in a million, attacked by a shark at one in 11.5 million, or dying in a terrorist attack at one in 20 million. Yet nobody thinks about those things as much as they fantasise about winning the lottery — not with the same enthusiasm anyway.

In science, any number below 0.01 per cent or 1 in 10,000 is often seen as so small that the odds of it happening are considered to be effectively zero. Yet the odds of winning Powerball are way less than zero, so why bother?


Perhaps because the lottery is fun because humans are awful at numbers, but awesome at stories.

It’s the reason World Vision shows us one starving orphan, instead of telling us how many orphans there are. It’s the same reason we’re so worried about shark attacks or terrorism. We see it happening all the time and even if it’s in a movie, on TV or in an advert, we think that because we are watching it happen, it’s more likely to happen to us. That’s why we kill sharks, keep out refugees and continue to buy lottery tickets. Lightning is a weird one. We can’t do much about that, so although it’s far more likely than sharks or terrorists, we try not to worry about it and pretty much succeed.


Back to our deceitful brains: they’re so good at stories that while we’re hearing, seeing or telling them, during that moment they feel real. And that’s why it genuinely feels great to fantasise about winning the lottery, to talk about it with others and do some quick internet browsing for private jets and mechanical monkeys.


So I’m going to keep buying lottery tickets. Although I know it won’t happen, it’s worth a few dollars to be able to dream about a transformer car and no longer having to write articles like this so I can afford more instant noodles.

Good luck!

This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald Sun

Xavier Toby is a writer and comedian.

His second comedy memoir ‘Going Out of My Mined’ is available now.

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