Why Do People Still Play the Lottery?


Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for the chance to win a prize. Prizes may range from cash to goods, and many people play for the promise of a better life. It’s an ancient pastime — Roman Emperor Nero loved his lottery games; and the casting of lots is mentioned in the Bible for everything from determining who will keep Jesus’ garments after the Crucifixion to selecting the king of Israel. In colonial America, it became a popular way to fund private and public works, including roads, churches, libraries, canals and schools.

In recent decades, states have become increasingly reliant on lottery revenues to boost their budgets. According to Cohen, state-run lotteries now account for about half of all state tax revenue and subsidize services like education, roads, social welfare programs and prisons. It’s no surprise that a large percentage of Americans play the lottery. The proportion of lottery players peaks in their twenties and thirties, when it’s around 70%; the percentage declines to about two-thirds for those in their forties, fifties and sixties; and then drops even further for those in their seventies and beyond. Men play the lottery more frequently than women do.

The biggest problem with lottery addiction is not that people don’t know the odds of winning a prize. It’s that they are unable to give up the hope that a lucky ticket will change their lives for the better, and this is a very human urge. It’s also a very addictive urge, and that’s why it’s so hard to quit.

A number of psychological studies have looked at the reasons why people continue to play, and one explanation is that it provides a sense of control in an otherwise uncertain world. It’s also possible that playing the lottery can act as a substitute for other forms of self-destructive behavior, such as drug use or gambling.

Another important reason is that the prizes for big jackpots are often enormous. This makes the game newsworthy and helps drive sales. But there are also a variety of other reasons to play, and a study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making suggests that lottery players, regardless of income, may think that winning is a uniquely level playing field. It’s a sentiment that is echoed in the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The song talks about an unlucky family who continues to buy tickets in hopes of changing their fortunes. And in a country that struggles with inequality and limited opportunities, it’s an evocative message to hear. In fact, it’s the kind of message that state lottery officials seem to be counting on. Keeping people hooked on the hope of a sudden windfall is a major part of their business strategy. That’s not unlike the tactics used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers. It’s a business that’s not going to go away anytime soon.