Whether it’s scratch-off tickets sold in check-cashing outlets or the Powerball and Mega Millions tickets that are hawked like Snickers bars at Dollar General, state lotteries aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction. Everything about them—the glitzy ads, the math on the front of the ticket, the odds of winning—is designed to keep people coming back for more. It’s a strategy not unlike that of video-game manufacturers or tobacco companies, but it’s government sponsored and carried out under the guise of public service.
Lotteries have been around for a long time, with their origins shrouded in mystery and mythology. The ancients used them for everything from divining God’s will to selecting slaves (Nero was a fan). In the fourteen-hundreds, they took off in the Low Countries, where public lotteries raised money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. Tickets were expensive, at ten shillings each, but they also offered a get-out-of-jail-free card, literally; the winners were immune from arrest for almost any crime.
The modern lottery was born in the nineteen-sixties, when America’s prosperity began to wane under the weight of an expanding population and inflation. States, especially those that provided a generous social safety net, found it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which would have been wildly unpopular with voters.
To help make up the shortfall, some states opted to introduce state-run gambling, and the lottery was one of their favorites. Its advocates argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well reap the profits and invest them in social services. The idea was appealing, and it gave cover to those who might otherwise have been morally reticent about legalizing state-run gambling.
Interestingly, it turns out that the more ridiculous the odds of winning became, the more popular lottery games grew. This was largely because the lottery was seen as an alternative to other, less desirable ways of becoming rich, such as speculating on stocks or investing in property.
It’s also worth noting that this obsession with the unimaginable wealth of lottery wins coincided with a decline in financial security for most working Americans. From the nineteen-seventies onward, pensions and job security eroded, health care costs increased, and the long-held national promise that hard work would allow children to be better off than their parents was increasingly looking like a hollow fantasy.
In the end, what people really value in lottery playing isn’t the chance to become wealthy, but the dream of doing so. This is irrational and mathematically impossible, but it’s what many people want. And for that, they are willing to pay a high price.
It’s also worth noting that most lottery winners spend their newfound riches very quickly and go bankrupt in a few years. The reality is that most Americans shouldn’t be spending $80 Billion a year on lottery tickets – they should be using that money to build an emergency fund or pay off their credit cards.