Why People Still Play the Lottery


In the United States, lottery players spend billions of dollars each year to play for a shot at a life-altering jackpot. While there is, to a degree, an inextricable human impulse to gamble, the real reasons people play are more complicated than simply liking to win. Lotteries dangle the promise of instant riches in a time of inequality and limited social mobility. This sleight of hand works well, and it is one reason why the lottery continues to grow in popularity.

There are many types of lottery games, but the basic elements are similar across the board. Some sort of system must be in place to record the identity of the bettor and the amount staked, usually through some means of ticketing. Then, the money is shuffled or pooled, and a winner determined through some mechanism, such as a drawing.

The first lottery systems were established in the fifteenth century, and their popularity grew as economies fluctuated and a growing number of towns began relying on them to fund public works, such as town fortifications or charity for the poor. In colonial America, lotteries became a common means of financing roads, libraries, canals, churches, and colleges.

But even though the odds of winning a lottery are very low, people continue to spend billions. And as Cohen explains, this trend seems to have taken hold since the nineteen-sixties, when the rise of state-sponsored lotteries coincided with the waning of America’s boom times and an intensification of tax revolt.