Why People Still Play the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people purchase tickets and win prizes by matching numbers drawn by a machine or other method. In addition to providing an opportunity to win a large sum of money, the lottery is often organized so that a percentage of the profits is donated to charitable causes. It is not surprising that many people are attracted to the possibility of winning the lottery, even though they realize it is a game of chance and that they have a much greater chance of losing than winning. However, for some, the desire to win is stronger than logic and they continue to play the lottery.

The casting of lots for deciding matters of merit or fate has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. However, the drawing of lotteries for material gain is of more recent origin. It was first recorded in the West during the reign of Augustus Caesar for municipal repairs in Rome, and the first publicly-held lottery to distribute prize money was held in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium. In colonial America, the lottery played a vital role in financing both private and public ventures. In addition to supporting colleges, it helped build roads and canals, as well as supplying the militia for local defense. In fact, Benjamin Franklin established a lottery in 1776 to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia from the British.

It has been pointed out that the expected utility of a lottery ticket, which is equal to the sum of entertainment and non-monetary value, can outweigh the disutility of the monetary loss and make a gamble a rational decision for an individual. This is especially true if the monetary cost of purchasing the ticket can be offset by a substantial gain in non-monetary value.

While this theory is true, it is not the whole story. There is also an inextricable human impulse to gamble. This is why lottery games remain popular, even though they are based on pure chance. People are inexplicably drawn to the prospect of winning a huge sum of money. This desire to gamble, coupled with the allure of a life of leisure that would result from such a success, drives many to participate in the lottery.

The evolution of state lotteries illustrates a common problem with the development of public policy. As a result, a lottery becomes tightly bound to specific interests. These can include convenience store owners (who get a steady stream of customers); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are frequently reported); and teachers (in states where some of the proceeds are earmarked for education). Politicians at every level, in turn, become dependent on these painless revenue streams and feel pressured to increase them. As a result, the lottery becomes a classic case of a policy that is established piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview. The resulting policies are often unsustainable.