The Dangers of Playing the Lottery


Lottery is a fixture in American society. Last year, people spent upwards of $100 billion on tickets, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. States promote the games as a way to raise revenue, and there’s no doubt that the proceeds do benefit public services, but just how meaningful those revenues are in broader state budgets and whether they’re worth the trade-offs to people who lose money are questions worthy of scrutiny.

The word “lottery” itself comes from Middle Dutch loterie, probably a calque on Middle English lotinge “action of drawing lots.” But it wasn’t until the fourteen-hundreds that the first European state-sponsored lotteries appeared. These started in Burgundy and Flanders with towns attempting to raise money for fortifications or help the poor. Francis I of France, who permitted the establishment of lotteries for private and public profit, helped to popularize them.

By the seventeenth century, lotteries were spreading across England and into the United States as a way to raise funds for public works, and they became especially common in America after the Revolution, when British colonists used them to finance such institutions as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union, and Brown. In fact, the Continental Congress voted to establish a lottery to try to raise funds for the revolutionary cause.

There’s no question that state-sponsored lotteries benefit public services, but the problem is that they also create a dangerous psychology in players. Among other things, it can lead to feelings of entitlement and a sense that you’re owed a prize just for buying a ticket. It’s also hard to resist the temptation to increase your odds by purchasing multiple tickets, which can significantly decrease your expected utility from playing.

But lotteries aren’t just about monetary prizes; they’re about entertainment and the experience of scratching a ticket. As such, they’re designed to keep players coming back for more, despite the fact that they’re often losing money. That’s why state lotteries aren’t above resorting to ad campaigns that play on the psychology of addiction and the math behind winning numbers.

The truth is, you’re not going to win. And yet you keep buying those tickets anyway because there’s a sliver of hope that maybe this time, just maybe, it will be your turn. But, as I’ve learned through conversations with lottery players, there’s an ugly underbelly to this sort of thinking. It can be about the feeling that you’re doing your civic duty and helping the children when you buy a lottery ticket, even though the percentage of the money that goes to the state is tiny. And that’s a really dangerous kind of thinking. A version of this article originally ran in the May 20, 2022 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. To continue receiving Businessweek’s best journalism, subscribe today. For a limited time, get your first month for just $0.99. Terms and conditions apply. Click here for details.