What is the Lottery?


The lottery is a type of gambling in which prizes, usually money, are awarded by chance. In the United States, state lotteries are regulated by law and operated by private companies or non-profit organizations. Typically, a large prize is offered along with several smaller ones. The amount of the total prize pool is predetermined before tickets go on sale, and expenses (e.g., profit for the lottery promoters and promotional costs) are subtracted from gross ticket sales before the prize amounts are determined.

In the Low Countries in the 15th century, towns held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. The name “lottery” is probably derived from the Dutch word for drawing lots (“lot”, literally) although it is also possible that it comes from Middle French loterie.

People like to gamble, and the lure of big jackpots is hard to resist. But there is more going on with lotteries than just this inextricable human impulse to try our luck. They’re dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.

It is irrational for people to buy tickets for games with expected values lower than the price of the ticket. Just as few people would accept a straight trade of one dollar for fifty cents, it is irrational to purchase lottery tickets for an expected return that is less than the cost of participating. It is even worse to purchase multiple tickets in the hope of winning the jackpot, which increases the expected cost and decreases the likelihood of a win.