Why Do People Play the Lottery?

In the nineteen-seventies, as economic decline and the costs of Vietnam War exploded, state governments found it harder than ever to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. The lottery was introduced to provide money for public projects, and its popularity grew rapidly.

In theory, people play the lottery because it gives them a chance to win a large amount of money. But Cohen argues that the real motivation is less benign. Lotteries are designed to suck people in by dangling unimaginable wealth. They use advertising to promote jackpots and arithmetic tricks (such as changing the odds of winning by increasing the number of balls) that make them seem more newsworthy. The super-sized prizes generate free publicity and drive ticket sales, which in turn increase the jackpots.

The games are popular because they appeal to a certain type of person, the gambler, who sees gambling as a purely hedonistic activity. The disutility of a monetary loss is outweighed by the entertainment value of winning, and if the winner can keep the winnings from taxes or other sources of redistribution, the gamble is even more appealing.

Lottery marketers also play on class anxieties by targeting poor neighborhoods, with billboards that promise a better life through luck or hard work. The wealthy do not avoid playing the lottery, but they buy far fewer tickets than those who live on minimum wage; on average, those making over fifty thousand dollars spend one per cent of their incomes on the game, while those earning under thirty thousand dollars spend thirteen percent.