The Psychology of the Lottery


In the past, people cast lots to decide everything from who got a king’s bed to who would keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. It was a popular pastime in the Roman Empire (Nero, for example, loved it) and is attested to throughout the Bible. Often, however, the lottery was a way to raise funds for public works projects and other state-related activities. Its advocates argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, it was a good idea for the government to take a cut of the proceeds.

In modern times, though, the popularity of lottery has grown along with a national obsession with unimaginable wealth. This, Cohen writes, coincided with a crisis in state budgets. Increasingly, governments needed to balance their budgets while avoiding either raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were highly unpopular with voters. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, as the income gap widened, job security eroded, and pensions shrank, our long-standing national promise that hard work would allow children to live better than their parents came increasingly into question.

The state lottery became a solution to the problem. It raised money for the states without angering voters, and, according to many economists, it also helped to spread America’s population. The big prizes were enticing, and even though most people who play the lottery aren’t rich, they do spend a significant share of their paychecks on tickets. The lottery, in other words, is a powerful marketing tool. And its promoters, in their advertising and the math behind the numbers, aren’t above using the same psychology of addiction as tobacco companies or video-game makers.

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