I encountered a strange offer a couple of weeks ago. While grocery shopping I was solicited to buy a lottery ticket (with the jackpot valued at £2.2 million), not for myself, but as a father’s day gift. Naturally, I dismissed the offer and went on my merry way but as I did so something nagged at me.
Who on earth would buy a lottery ticket for someone else?
Now, I say this not because a lottery ticket is a terrible gift (although it is) but because I could think of no line of reasoning which would allow someone to think this is a rational action, regardless of their prior beliefs about the lottery.
Let’s imagine person X, who, although being a rational agent, has no understanding of probability and so doesn’t know that expected value of a lottery ticket is infinitesimally close to zero.
X can expect one of two things.
a) That his ticket will lose.
b) That his ticket will win.
In scenario a) gifting this lottery ticket to his father is akin to handing him a receipt. X has simply wasted money which could have been better spent a Father’s day card. This would of course communicate a far better sentiment than a useless scrap of paper.
I find scenario b) far more troubling. Gifting this ticket would be the equivalent of X giving his father £2.2 million. Now, I love my father as much as any son, but I certainly wouldn’t give him £2.2 million as a Father’s day gift (sorry dad). X here either possesses an unrivalled level of filial devotion, or is attempting to make amends for being the primary drain on his father’s finances for his entire life.
For my entire walk home I struggled with this question, feeling very inferior as I imagined the kind of son who would casually drop his dad enough money for a small yacht. My confusion only increased when I realised that the lotto promoters clearly thought there were enough of these sons to constitute a market.
However, by the time I’d reached my flat and put my groceries away, I realised that I had neglected something important, namely the expectations of the receiving party.
Let’s once again make the dubious assumption that X is a rational agent and assume that his father, hereby referred to as Y, is also one. Let’s also assume that X is sufficiently knowledgeable about his father’s beliefs about the lottery. The following options exist.
a) X and Y believe that the ticket will win.
b) X believes that the ticket will win and Y believes that it will lose.
c) X and Y believe that the ticket will lose.
d) X believes that the ticket will lose and Y believes that it will win.
Scenario a) still makes little sense to me. Despite the fact that X is now assured that his father will appreciate the gift of £2.2 million, it still seems rather excessive a gift. Not to mention, this is father’s day we’re talking about. How does X think he’s going to top this gift when his father’s birthday rolls around?
Strangely enough, b) makes more sense as although X expects his father to be disappointed at the useless gift he’s been given, he also expects to be vindicated when his father does eventually win. Whether a sense of smug satisfaction is worth the over £2 million that could have been his is still up for debate of course.
I’d like to believe that somewhere, come this week’s lottery, scenario c) will occur. X watches his father excitedly rip open the envelope only to see his smile fade into a puzzled frown. The father’s eyes slowly rise to meet his son’s who, in turn, stares at him blankly. Ten awkward seconds pass then, finally, X speaks. ‘Happy Father’s Day’ he whispers contemptuously, before stealing all the food in the fridge and running out the house.
And that leaves us with d) which strikes me as by far the most plausible scenario. X spends a paltry two pounds and watches as his father bursts into tears of surprise and joy. After all, Dad believes that his son (who he’d always assumed to be an ungrateful little prick) values their relationship at over £2 million.
For the following days, X is treated like a king. He’s waited on hand and foot by his parents, he sits at the head of the table and his little sister’s college fund is plundered to buy him a Lexus. Meanwhile Daddy dearest is completely overcome with gratitude and guilt for having ever considered kicking him out the house (in spite of the fact X is over 30 and unemployed).
Then, at last the fateful evening comes. The family gathers in front of the telly: Mother’s wringing her hands nervously, little sister’s sulking on the floor filling in food service job applications and Dad’s planted firmly in the centre of the couch, held rapt by Gaby Roslin’s chirpy preamble. His ticket clasped firmly in his left hand, his son hugged tightly by his right. Gaby hands over to the disembodied Alan who announces the jackpot to a fanfare! Dad’s grip tightens on X’s shoulder, and his eyes fill with tears again.
The drums begin to pound, Lancelot starts to spin and the balls drop and churn. Dad’s chest is heaving. His son’s devotion (which he’d questioned ever since that incident with the wasps and the metal detector) is finally going to be confirmed. No longer will he have to slave away in his nine-to-five job packing boxes at the cog factory. He’ll quit tomorrow and retire to Florida with Mother. That’ll save their dying marriage. They’ll find somewhere on the coast. Nowhere too fancy, just enough room for the two of them and a guest bedroom for their loving son of course, who’ll no doubt visit them every year. He’ll buy a boat and spend his days deep-sea fishing while Mother joins a country club and rediscovers her passion for painting. They’ll be so happy, perhaps she’ll even let him…
He snaps out of his daydream and glares at his daughter, but before he can reproach her for ruining his daydream he sees the concern on her face. He wheels round to look at Mother whose face has drained to a deathly white. His stomach drops as his head slowly turns towards the T.V. The music’s stopped, Gabby’s chirping again and the life-changing numbers are lined at the bottom of the screen. He doesn’t understand at first. This can’t be right. He knew he was going to win. But slowly, confusion gives way to a cold horror. His fingers loosen and the ticket floats the floor useless and forgotten. He’s lost.
Suddenly, he becomes aware of a cold presence on his right and, like a man etherised, his head turns.
X is staring at him with cold, dead eyes. The bottom falls out of Dad’s world as he finally realises the full extent of his son’s malice. He tries to speak but all that comes out is a single despairing croak.
Then, like an awful serpent, X’s lips part. ‘Happy Father’s Day’ he whispers, before striding out the door, slamming it behind him. There’s a purr as the Lexus starts up followed by a screech as it pulls out of the drive, never to be seen again.
So, yeah. Stick to buying your dad a card.
Happy father’s day everyone!