Why Do People Play the Lottery?


The distribution of property or even a person’s fate by the casting of lots has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. But the use of lotteries to provide financial prizes is more recent, although still quite ancient. It was the favored form of raising funds for municipal repairs in Rome, and during the 17th century it was common in the Netherlands to organize lotteries for a variety of public usages. Today, state-run lotteries operate in 37 countries worldwide.

In a lottery, people pay to have an opportunity to win a prize ranging from money to jewelry and new cars. A lottery is legal when the three essential elements are present: payment, chance and consideration. The federal law that defines a lottery prohibits the mailing in interstate and foreign commerce of promotional materials for lotteries. The lottery is a popular way to raise money for many types of organizations and causes, from schools to the AIDS Foundation. But it is important to remember that the odds are against winning. Almost everyone who plays the lottery loses.

Why do people play? One reason is that they enjoy the prospect of hope against the odds. While the likelihood of winning a lottery prize is low, most people are willing to pay a small price — $2 per ticket — for the chance that they will win. Many people play the lottery regularly, each week or with every trip to the store.

A second argument is that state governments rely heavily on lotteries as a painless source of revenue. This is especially true during times of economic stress, when a lottery is often promoted as an alternative to tax increases or cuts in government spending. However, studies have found that the popularity of lotteries is not necessarily related to a state’s actual fiscal condition.

States adopt lotteries by legislating a monopoly for themselves; establishing a lottery agency or public corporation to run the operation; beginning operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, driven by pressure for additional revenues, progressively expanding the size and complexity of the lottery’s offerings. The patterns are strikingly similar.

But the most important factor in a lottery’s success is public approval. The more a lottery is perceived as benefiting a particular public good, such as education, the greater its appeal. This dynamic has been at work in virtually every lottery case. It is the central force behind the overwhelming majority of state lotteries. But it is also the source of controversy when a lottery’s purpose is not clearly understood. For example, a lottery that is ostensibly for educational purposes can become controversial if it turns out to benefit only a few wealthy players. This is precisely the type of lottery that some critics have in mind when they call for a ban on all lotteries.