The Truth About Playing the Lottery


Lottery is a popular pastime, a way to win big money with small investments. But it’s not just about chance; it’s also about irrational, compulsive gambling behavior. This is a story about people who play the lottery, and what they do to try to overcome their irrational impulses.

Lotteries were born of exigency, and early America was especially short on revenue. Cohen writes that the nation was “defined politically by a profound aversion to taxation” and, for this reason, lotteries became a “popular source of state funds.” They helped finance everything from public buildings to churches, schools, roads, canals, bridges, and even the Revolutionary War. Lottery proceeds also played a role in funding private ventures, such as the founding of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton universities.

A modern lottery is typically composed of a centralized organization, a sales network, and a mechanism for recording the identities and stakes of bettors. Bettors write their names on a ticket that is then deposited with the lottery organization for shuffling and possible selection in the drawing. The bettor often receives a receipt for the ticket, but this is not always necessary. Many modern lotteries, including the national Powerball and Mega Millions games, allow bettor to purchase a numbered ticket for a fraction of the total cost.

In the case of the Powerball and Mega Millions games, there are a number of additional steps to ensure that only one winning ticket is selected, and this involves a computer program. The entrant’s identification is checked against a database of previous winners to prevent double-dipping. The winning number is then drawn from a pool of digits, and the person who writes his or her name on the ticket gets the prize.

It’s not hard to see why people buy tickets; after all, where else can you invest a dollar for the chance of a hundred-million-dollar prize? Certainly, the risk-to-reward ratio is better than most investment opportunities. But, as it turns out, the odds of winning are quite slim. And, of course, the purchase of a lottery ticket takes dollars that could be used to save for retirement or pay for college tuition.

The truth is that lotteries do have a powerful psychological pull, and there are reasons to be concerned about the way they affect society. The biggest problem is that they are designed to keep people coming back for more, and this is not so different from the strategies of tobacco or video game makers. The fact is that the more that jackpots grow, the more people want to play. That’s why the Powerball jackpot was once one-in-three-million odds, but it now stretches into the millions. And it’s why those enormous billboards are still out there, tempting people to buy a ticket for the next drawing. Even those who would never gamble normally find themselves tempted by the big prizes. It’s just human nature.