The Popularity of the Lottery

A lottery is a game wherein participants have the chance to win one or more prizes by drawing lots. Prizes may consist of cash or goods or services, or they may be in the form of a free ticket for another drawing. Lotteries are popular with the general public and have a broad appeal as a means for raising funds, because they can be conducted with relatively low costs.

Lotteries have a long history, dating back to ancient times, and they have become an integral part of state finance in many countries. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they became particularly prevalent in Europe, where they were used for charitable causes and to raise money for wars and other public projects. In the nineteenth century, they spread to America, despite strong Protestant prohibitions against gambling.

Cohen’s book starts with a little history, but the real story begins in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the potential profits to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding. The nation’s prosperity had begun to wane, and state governments were finding it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting essential services—both options unpopular with voters.

The resulting financial turmoil was a major factor in the popularity of the lottery, as it seemed to offer an easy way for people to make big money and get out of their debts. In addition, Americans in the nineteen-sixties were still under the spell of the prosperity gospel, and they believed that hard work and thrift would eventually make them rich.

It is this belief, along with a strong desire for instant gratification, that gives lottery games their lasting appeal. Unlike most casino games, the odds of winning are not actually that great—but players often believe they are. They buy tickets in every state, putting their faith in the system even though it is well known that only a small percentage of players ever win. They also tend to buy into other myths about the lottery, like the notion that certain numbers are more common or that playing at night is more lucrative.

Moreover, they have come to believe that the proceeds of the lottery benefit society in a number of ways, including education, medical research, and road construction. As a result, they feel as if they are doing something good when they purchase a ticket, which is why the message lotteries promote—even if you don’t win, you’re helping someone else—is so effective.

This appeal isn’t all that different from what tobacco or video-game manufacturers do, and it explains why state lotteries are so successful at keeping people hooked. But there is one difference: Unlike cigarette companies or video-game makers, lottery commissioners aren’t above resorting to psychological tricks to keep people buying their products. Everything from the ads to the math on the front of the tickets is designed to manipulate gamblers’ behavior and keep them coming back for more.