The word lottery comes from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate.” People have used it for centuries as a method of allocating property or goods, and it’s been an important part of public finance, including financing government projects. In modern lotteries, money is collected from participants in exchange for a chance to win a prize. Some of these prizes are large, and others are small. In addition, the promoter of a lottery usually takes some of the proceeds for profit and expenses.

Lotteries have an enormous appeal because they tap into a fundamental human desire to dream big, says Matheson. The fact that it’s difficult to develop an intuitive sense of risk and reward on this scale also works in their favor. For example, many people have no idea that the odds of winning a lottery can change from a 1-in-175 million chance to a 1-in-300 million one, but this doesn’t stop them from buying tickets.

And although there are plenty of quote-unquote systems that don’t pass the smell test, most lottery players enter with a clear understanding of the odds and know they’re playing an irrational game. The fact that they’re willing to spend $50 or $100 a week is surprising and defies the stereotypes we’d expect.