The Psychology of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which the state draws numbers and then sells tickets to a pool of players hoping that one of them will win the grand prize. A small percentage of the total amount betted is used to pay out prizes and for costs associated with organizing and promoting the lottery, while the rest goes to the winners. The idea of a random drawing for a substantial sum of money is an appealing one, and it has proven very popular around the world. It also carries with it the implicit assumption that a winning ticket-holder is deserving of the prize, and in that sense it can feel like a meritocratic activity.

The modern lottery has its roots in the eighteenth century, when Dutch states started to run public lotteries in order to raise revenue. Over time, they became increasingly popular, despite the fact that the odds of winning were enormously poor. By the nineteen-sixties, when America’s boom years began to fade and states faced a crisis in their budgets, lawmakers realized that they could no longer maintain services by hiking taxes or cutting services, which would be unpopular with voters. Instead, they started relying on the lottery to float a line item in the budget, typically education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid to veterans. This approach made the lottery seem to be “a budgetary miracle,” Cohen writes, because it allowed politicians to claim that a vote in favor of the lottery was not a vote for gambling but for a specific government service.

A third element of a successful lottery is a means for recording the identities of bettors and the amounts they stake. The bettor might write his name on a ticket that is deposited with the lottery organization for later shuffling and selection in the draw, or he might buy a numbered receipt to be used to determine who won. Most modern lotteries now use computerized systems that record each bettor’s number(s) and the amounts bet.

Finally, the modern lottery is not above availing itself of the psychology of addiction. All the strategies that lottery companies employ—from the design of the tickets to the math behind them—are meant to encourage people to keep playing, even though the odds are overwhelmingly against them. It’s not as blatant as the tactics that are employed by tobacco and video-game manufacturers, but it still works.

In the end, what really matters for a lottery is that its odds be high enough to make a winning ticket-holder’s overall utility rise above his disutility from losing. Then he will rationally choose to play, just as he might decide to purchase a Snickers bar or go shopping at a Dollar General. That’s why lottery commissions advertise their games on television and in magazines—and sell them at gas stations and check-cashing outlets and supermarket checkout lines. And it’s why they make sure their advertising campaigns reach the most vulnerable parts of society.