The Psychology of Lottery


A game in which prizes are distributed by drawing lots. The word lot is probably derived from Middle Dutch loterie, via Old French loterie or a calque on Middle Dutch lotinge “action of drawing lots” (see chance). State-sponsored lotteries first appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century and were widely used in the seventeenth, when they were hailed as a painless form of taxation. Thomas Jefferson favored them, as did Alexander Hamilton, who understood that people would rather gamble for a big prize than pay a small price for the services of government—indeed, the early American lotteries were even tangled up with slavery, as when George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings and when one formerly enslaved man won enough tickets to buy his freedom.

In modern America, forty-four states and the District of Columbia run lotteries; the six that don’t (you can’t play Powerball in Alabama or Utah, for example) are motivated by religious concerns, the fact that gambling is already illegal there, the reluctance of state governments to take a cut of the profits, or a lack of fiscal urgency. The wealthiest Americans, meanwhile, buy fewer tickets than those in the lower economic brackets; on average, the rich spend only one percent of their annual income on them; while those making less than fifty thousand dollars a year spend thirteen percent.

Nonetheless, lotteries aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction; everything about them, from their advertising campaigns to the math that underlies them, is designed to keep people playing. The HuffPost Highline recently profiled a Michigan couple in their sixties who have made nearly $27 million over nine years by exploiting this logic, buying thousands of tickets at a time to ensure that they can win, and thus keep themselves hooked.