Why Play the Lottery?

A lottery is an ancient pastime, with examples appearing in Roman times (Nero was a fan) and throughout the Bible, where casting lots for everything from the right to keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion has been used. And, despite the odds of winning, lottery playing continues today in great numbers in the United States and around the world. People play the lottery for a number of reasons, including entertainment value and the promise of instant wealth in an age of limited social mobility. But if we are honest with ourselves, many of us also play because we hope to win the big jackpot and escape poverty, or at least improve our life’s circumstances.

The lottery’s success in the United States is based on a combination of factors. First and foremost, lotteries are marketed to the general public, with ads on radio and television, in newspapers and magazines, and on billboards along highways. These advertisements target a broad range of people: convenience store owners, who often serve as vendors; lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by these companies to state political campaigns are widely reported); teachers, whose salaries have been subsidized with lotto proceeds; and even state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to a new source of revenue.

Another factor is the degree to which a lottery’s profits are perceived as benefiting some particular public good. This message is especially effective in economic stress, when people worry about tax increases or cuts to public programs. However, studies show that a state’s actual fiscal health has little bearing on whether or when it adopts a lottery.

Lottery supporters argue that, since people are going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the profits. This argument has its limits – by the logic of this line of reasoning, governments should also sell heroin – but it has given political cover to people who otherwise oppose lotteries. For example, black voters in some states have supported legalization, arguing that lottery profits will help pay for services they would otherwise support but that white residents of urban areas do not want to pay for.

Lastly, lotteries make extensive use of the psychology of addiction. The way tickets are designed, the prizes offered, and the marketing messages are all geared towards making the games addictive. In fact, lottery marketers have adapted the techniques of addiction marketers in other industries, like video-game producers and tobacco companies.

These factors all combine to create a powerful and profitable enterprise. As long as the public’s desire to win the lottery remains high, the industry is likely to continue expanding and attracting new players. But as it grows, the societal costs are mounting. The only question is whether the lottery will be able to withstand the growing pressure to regulate it. If it cannot, the consequences will be far-reaching. And they may not be pretty. 1