Why People Love to Play the Lottery

Lottery is a kind of gambling that requires players to guess a certain quantity of numbers from a range. The odds of getting those numbers right are absurdly low, and yet, people love to play the game. Why? Cohen argues that the popularity of lottery owes to a particular dynamic that came into play in America in the nineteenth century. At that time, growing awareness of the money to be made in gambling coincided with a crisis in state finances that resulted from population growth, inflation, and the cost of wars. In that context, balancing state budgets became difficult without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were highly unpopular with voters.

The solution to this dilemma was to use lotteries as a painless source of revenue. The term “lottery” probably derives from the Dutch word for fate, and by the fifteenth century it had been adopted in England to describe public auctions for city fortifications, charity, and a variety of other purposes. Lotteries were even used in the American Revolution to raise funds for cannons, and Thomas Jefferson sponsored one after his death to help alleviate his crushing debts.

The message that lottery commissions have relied on is that if you buy a ticket, even though you might lose, you’re doing your civic duty because you’re helping the state out. This has the effect of masking the regressivity of the game and making it seem more virtuous than it is.