Lottery tickets give people a tiny sliver of hope that their lives could be dramatically altered for the better. They buy them, even though the odds of winning are extremely long, because they feel that, well, somebody has to win. And if they don’t, the next person will. It’s a vicious cycle that, if left unchecked, can lead to the kind of extreme indebtedness that makes it hard for Americans to pay their bills, much less save for emergencies. Americans spend about $80 billion a year on lottery tickets. This money is better spent building an emergency fund or paying down credit card debt.
The word “lottery” dates back to the Middle Dutch loterie, which is probably a calque of Middle French loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots.” But lottery games have been around for far longer than the modern state, with some of the first recorded evidence of their existence being keno slips from the Chinese Han dynasty in the 1st century AD. In the 17th and 18th centuries, governments and licensed promoters used lotteries to finance major projects including the building of the British Museum and bridges in the American colonies. The prizes in these lotteries were often human beings, as in the case of a formerly enslaved man who won a prize and went on to foment slavery rebellions.
Early on, advocates of legalizing the lottery argued that it would float a state’s entire budget. Once that claim proved false, they shifted tactics. They began to argue that a lottery would cover a single line item, usually education but also elder care or public parks, and made it easy to campaign on: A vote for the lottery is a vote in favor of veterans; against it is a vote against education.
As the lottery’s jackpots have grown ever larger, its popularity has soared. And it is these super-sized prizes that drive the game’s sales, and which generate a windfall of free publicity on news sites and TV shows. The bigger the jackpot, the more people are likely to believe that their own chances of winning are a tiny bit higher than usual.
But there is an ugly underbelly to this logic: It’s based on the idea that, for many people, life is a big lottery and that the only way up is by playing the longest shot. People have all sorts of quote-unquote systems — completely unfounded by statistical reasoning — about what numbers to play and which stores are lucky, and what time of day to buy. They may even have a mystical belief that the universe is conspiring to make their dreams come true.
When the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits of the lottery exceed the disutility of a monetary loss, it becomes rational for an individual to buy a ticket. That’s the message that lottery commissions rely on to persuade people to keep playing, even though the percentage of state revenues they raise has declined as a result of tax revolts in the late twentieth century.