The Lottery Is Not For The Faint Of Heart


The premise of the lottery is simple: You buy a ticket, and the prize—often cash—is awarded to the winner. This is a common way for governments to raise funds—or, as in the case of the Powerball game, to fund a major public project. But the reality is a lot less straightforward. Lottery games, like all gambling, are an exercise in risk and uncertainty. The odds are stacked against you, and winning requires a small sliver of hope that the worst of your life’s circumstances might suddenly change. That’s why a big lottery jackpot, when it does happen, is such an extraordinary thing.

Despite the obvious flaws in this idea, the concept of the lottery has become a powerful force in American culture. Some forty-four states run their own lotteries, and most of the rest rely on the federal government’s Mega Millions and Powerball games. These are not games for the faint of heart, and they’re incredibly addictive.

People buy tickets in large quantities and spend a large portion of their incomes on them. Buying a ticket in a state that runs the national lotteries costs around US$1. The average American household spends more than $3,000 per year on lottery tickets. Those who play the most regularly—as many as five or six times a week—spend about US$50 to $100 each time they do so. The irrationality of their actions is obvious, but what’s harder to understand are the motivations behind their behavior.

For most, the answer lies in the psychology of addiction. Lottery ads are designed to exploit the same psychological dynamics that make nicotine or videogames addictive, and the math of lotteries is carefully calibrated to keep players hooked. The goal, in short, is to sell a product that is morally wrong but financially sound.

The word “lottery” derives from the Dutch noun lotte, meaning fate or chance. Its English roots are also uncertain, though it is often linked to Middle Dutch loet and Old French loterie (both of which refer to the act of drawing lots). A number of early state-sponsored lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. They raised money to build town fortifications, help the poor, and finance other public ventures. Lotteries played a similar role in colonial America, where they were used to fund private and public projects. The foundations of Princeton and Columbia universities, for instance, were paid for with lottery proceeds.

Cohen’s book begins by looking at the evolution of the modern state lottery, which emerged in the nineteen-sixties when the prospect of tax increases and budget cuts to popular programs met growing awareness of the enormous profits that could be made in the gambling business. His argument is that the success of state lotteries is not necessarily connected to the objective fiscal health of a given state; rather, their popularity hinges on the extent to which lottery proceeds are seen as benefiting a particular public good.