Why Do People Still Play the Lottery?


Across the United States, people spend over $80 Billion a year on lottery tickets. That’s over $600 per household – the kind of money that could be used to save for a rainy day, or pay down credit card debt. But most people don’t win. And those who do have to pay huge taxes – often up to half their winnings. Even with that knowledge, most people continue to play, in the hope that they’ll win the big one – the prize that makes it all worthwhile. But how much longer will that be possible? And what does it say about our culture that so many Americans continue to buy lottery tickets, despite the odds of winning?

Lotteries have a long history in Europe, starting in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders with towns trying to raise funds to fortify their defenses or help the poor. Francis I of France permitted the establishment of public lotteries in cities for private and public profit beginning in 1520, and they became popular throughout the country in the early 17th century.

The main argument used to promote state-sponsored lotteries has been that they provide “painless” revenue for the government: people voluntarily spend their own money for the public good, and politicians look at it as a way to avoid raising taxes on the general population. Once established, however, lottery revenues typically expand rapidly at first but then level off or decline. As a result, there is constant pressure for the state to introduce new games in order to maintain or increase revenues.

Whether or not the average person will find a lottery attractive has to do with their subjective expectations of value: they must be willing to endure some degree of monetary loss to receive the expected utility of non-monetary benefits like entertainment. A person who feels that the value of the prizes is greater than their monetary cost will rationally choose to purchase a ticket, while those who don’t feel that the benefits are worth the expense won’t.

A large part of lottery’s success is based on the ability to offer super-sized jackpots, which draw the attention of news outlets and create excitement about the game. But such jackpots can be expensive to maintain: they require a higher prize amount than regular drawing, and so must have the potential for massive jackpot carryovers in subsequent drawings. It’s also important for lottery commissions to promote a message that lotteries are fun and accessible, because this obscures the regressivity of lottery sales, and encourages people to buy tickets more frequently.

In most modern lotteries, the buyer can indicate a single number or a range of numbers on their playslip; they can also mark a box or section on the playslip to indicate that they want the computer to randomly pick a set of numbers for them. Then they must choose which prize tier to enter, ranging from the top to the bottom. Generally, the higher the prize tier, the lower the odds of winning.