Why Do People Keep Playing the Lottery?


Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for a prize. It was common in the Low Countries in the 15th century and, later, in England and America. People played it for cash, goods, or services. Governments often promoted the lottery as a substitute for higher taxes, and the prizes were usually public works or welfare programs. In the modern world, there are many different types of lotteries, but they all share certain features. The most important element is a process for selecting winners, which may be based on chance alone or by a combination of chance and skill. The winning numbers or symbols must be randomly selected from a pool or collection of tickets and their counterfoils. This pool is usually thoroughly mixed by some mechanical means, such as shaking or tossing. The number-picking process can be automated by computers.

The prizes are typically large, but the total amount of money paid for tickets is far greater than what is awarded to a winner. A percentage of the total is usually taken for costs and profit, and the remainder goes to the winners. There are also rules governing the frequency of winning and the size of the prizes, which must be balanced against the cost of marketing, promotion, and administration.

It’s no secret that the odds of winning a big jackpot are very low, but what’s less well understood is why people keep playing. As with cigarette companies and video-game manufacturers, state-run lotteries are not above exploiting the psychology of addiction. They use everything from the front of the ticket to the math behind it to encourage players to keep betting.

A growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business, in combination with a financial crisis in state budgets, led to the birth of modern lotteries. In the nineteen-sixties, as the population grew and inflation rose and the price of the Vietnam War escalated, state governments began to struggle to balance their budgets. For many, especially those with generous social safety nets, raising taxes or cutting services was a tough sell to voters.

Cohen suggests that the craze for lottery play was born of this national anxiety. It coincided with a decline in prosperity, as income gaps widened, job security and pensions diminished, and health-care costs and unemployment climbed. In a country that once prided itself on the promise that hard work and education would enable people to achieve a middle-class life, it became impossible for most working families to live up to that ideal.

While the lottery is not a panacea, it has become a powerful tool for state budgets and a major source of entertainment for many Americans. But the lottery’s popularity is not without risks, and we should all be aware of those before we pick our numbers.