The Psychology of the Lottery

The Psychology of the Lottery

A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated by a process that relies wholly on chance. Its allure, as a way of escaping the grind of everyday life, is undeniable, and states are not above availing themselves of its psychology, the same ways tobacco or video-game companies do. From the design of scratch-off tickets to the math that underpins ad campaigns, everything about lottery marketing is designed to keep people coming back for more.

The lottery’s roots go back centuries. Moses instructed the Israelites to divide land by lot, and the Romans used the practice to give away slaves and property. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress used lotteries to raise money for the colonial army, and Alexander Hamilton understood their essential nature when he argued that “everybody will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain”—and would “prefer a small chance of winning much to a great chance of winning little.”

Despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, state-sponsored lotteries became common in America as European settlement of the continent moved forward. By the mid-thirteenth century, the word had arrived in England, and in 1569 Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first English state lottery. The proceeds were designated for the “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realm.” Unlike modern gambling, which is often marketed as being fun and harmless, early lotteries were deeply entangled with slavery in America—as the story of Denmark Vesey, who won a Virginia lottery and purchased his freedom, shows.

Cohen explains how the lottery became a national phenomenon in the late twentieth-century, as state governments struggled to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. As a result, the lottery’s marketing campaign transformed from one aimed at encouraging all citizens to buy a ticket, to one that claimed that a vote for the lottery was not a vote against education or elder care, but for something as noble as combating crime and helping veterans.

In reality, of course, lottery revenue is a highly volatile indicator of economic trends; sales increase as incomes decline and unemployment rise, and the products are heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or black. But the message that lotteries are about doing a civic duty, or about helping children or whatever, is still a persuasive one, especially in an era when states are increasingly turning to other sources of revenue such as sports betting.

The bottom line is that the odds of winning are stacked against you, and even if you win, you will likely spend more money on a ticket than you’ll get back in prizes. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. The same psychology that makes it hard to quit smoking or playing video games also applies to the lottery—and that’s why state lottery commissions are constantly innovating to keep people buying and playing tickets. The result is a gambling industry that’s as addictive as any other.