I've always thought of Lotto games as regressive taxation, and have been totally unable to understand why people would play them instead of socking the money away in a savings account. Benedict Carey has written a nice piece in the March 11 New York Times showing how I have completely missed the point.
...lottery tickets are not an investment but a disposable consumer purchase, which changes the equation radically. Like a throwaway lifestyle magazine, lottery tickets engage transforming fantasies: a wine cellar, a pool, a vision of tropical blues and white sand. The difference is that the ticket can deliver.
And as long as the fantasy is possible, even a negligible probability of winning becomes paradoxically reinforcing...One is willing to pay hard cash that it be so real, so objective, that it is actually calculable — by someone, even if not oneself.
Because it is pure luck, the lottery is easy to grasp and allows for plenty of perfectly loopy — and very enjoyable — number superstitions. Your birthday digits never won you a dime? Try your marriage date; your favorite psalm verse; the day your bullying father-in-law died.... psychologists have found that ticket holders are very reluctant to trade their tickets for others, precisely because they have an illusion of control from having picked magical numbers.
This sense of power infuses the waiting period with purpose. And the hope of a huge payoff, however remote, is itself a source of pleasure. In brain-imaging studies of drug users, as well as healthy adults placing bets, neuroscientists have found that the prospect of a reward activates the same circuits in the brain that the payoffs themselves do.