Why Do People Play the Lottery?

There’s something inherently appealing about gambling, and the lottery is an especially enticing form. It can be as simple as buying a ticket, or a whole lot more complex. Billboards on the road promise the possibility of instant riches, while people in supermarket checkout lines pick up scratch-off tickets and Powerball and Mega Millions tickets alongside Snickers bars and milk. And lottery marketers aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction; everything from the size of the jackpot to the math behind the odds is designed to keep players coming back for more.

Lottery is a hugely popular pastime in the US, and most states run one or more. The odds of winning are pretty low, though. The New York lotto, for example, has one-in-three-million odds; that’s not much different than the odds of being struck by lightning or of being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. And the money that lottery winners do win often has a deleterious effect on their lives, often making them worse off than they were before they won.

It’s hard to understand why, then, people play. The answer is complicated, but it starts with a deep-seated belief that we’re all going to be rich someday, and that the lottery is a legitimate way to make that happen. It also has a bit to do with an inextricable attachment to the idea of luck, and how we feel about our own good fortune.

Historically, the lottery has been a popular way for governments to raise money for both public and private ventures. In colonial America, for instance, it was used to fund roads, schools, libraries, churches, canals, bridges, and even the foundation of Princeton and Columbia Universities. It even financed the expedition against Canada during the French and Indian War. The earliest European lotteries were probably similar, with towns using them to raise money for town defenses and to help the poor.

In more recent times, state lotteries have become more of a tax on lower-income people, and they’ve helped fuel the growth of for-profit casinos. Lottery advocates argue that because people are going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the profits, dismissing long-standing ethical objections to state-run gambling.

In some ways, the argument makes sense. The majority of lottery players are disproportionately poor and less educated, and they tend to buy a lot more tickets. They also spend a higher percentage of their incomes on them. But the argument obscures a more fundamental issue: that lottery playing is regressive. It hits the poor hardest, and it may be a root cause of some of the problems they face. This article originally appeared on The Kenyon Review.