Why Do People Play the Lottery?

Why Do People Play the Lottery?


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated through a process that relies on chance. It’s one of the oldest forms of public entertainment, dating back to ancient times when Roman emperors gave away property and slaves by lot during Saturnalian feasts.

A modern lottery has a relatively simple set-up: players buy tickets and are awarded prizes if their numbers match those drawn at random. Prizes can be anything from cash to goods to subsidized housing units. It’s the big prizes that attract most attention, and those are what generate the most revenue for lottery promoters. But the mechanics of the lottery are deceptive: winning a large sum of money doesn’t change much about people’s lives. Winning, for example, ten million dollars improves most people’s lives significantly but doesn’t necessarily make them happier than those who win only one million.

In fact, the odds of winning are so long that lottery tickets provide a low risk-to-reward ratio. So why do so many people play? The answer is that lottery play satisfies a basic human desire to try and control their own fates. The chances of winning a lottery are low, but many people believe that they can manipulate the odds by buying tickets at lucky stores or times of day and by picking numbers that reflect their birthdays or anniversaries. These strategies tinker with the odds but don’t change them dramatically.

People also buy lottery tickets because they enjoy the experience of scratching the ticket and watching the numbers pop up. They also like to talk about their “lucky” numbers and what they’ve done to increase their chances of winning. But despite all the talk, most lottery winners know that their chances of winning are very, very slim.

But the more significant reason people play is that they think it’s their civic duty to do so. When states first introduced lotteries, they were hailed as a painless form of taxation that allowed states to expand their social safety net without burdening the middle class with new taxes. And this remains the message that lottery promoters rely on, even though it’s false.

In fact, state lottery revenues contribute billions to government receipts that could be used for things like education and health care. Lottery players as a group are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. One in eight Americans buys a lottery ticket at least once a year, and about 50 percent of them play regularly.

To see how state lottery revenue contributes to overall government revenue, I analyzed data on the states’ 2015 annual reports and the preliminary results of their 2016 fiscal year. I then used this data to calculate the percentage of each state’s total revenue that comes from its lottery. This reflects the percentage of each state’s population that plays the lottery. The higher the percentage, the more the state collects in lottery revenue. The results are shown in the graph below. The data on the left axis shows state lottery revenue and the percentage of the population that participates. The data on the right axis shows a similar graph for state gambling revenue, but the relationship between the two isn’t as strong as it is with lottery revenue.