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The Truth About the Lottery

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A lottery is a game in which people pay money and then have a chance to win prizes. It can be used to raise money for a wide variety of purposes, including subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements. The lottery has many different forms, but the most common is a financial one, where players purchase tickets for a chance to win a large cash prize. The first lottery games likely developed in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, with towns trying to fortify their defenses or assist the poor. France’s Francis I popularized lotteries in the 1600s, and by the 17th century they were widespread.

By the time of the Civil War, the American public had become defined politically by its aversion to taxation, and lotteries had emerged as an alternative method for raising money. States began using them to fund everything from churches and schools to bridges, parks, and even to construct some of our best colleges—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary all were financed partly by lotteries. The Continental Congress even tried a lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War.

In the early post-World War II period, state governments expanded their social safety nets, and many citizens viewed the lottery as a painless form of taxation. But the lottery’s popularity waned in the seventies and eighties as the income gap widened, retirement and health-care costs soared, and the promise that hard work and education would render most Americans better off than their parents was beginning to prove untrue for a growing number of working Americans.

As a result, more and more Americans were spending large portions of their incomes on tickets, and winning smaller prizes was less compelling than it had been. Lottery commissions shifted their messaging, promoting two main messages: that the lottery is a fun way to pass the time and that playing it is a safe, low-cost activity.

But that strategy ignores the fact that a significant portion of lottery ticket sales come from committed gamblers who are willing to spend a great deal of their lives on the chance to win big prizes. It also obscures the regressivity of these games, which tend to favor those with the most resources.

The truth is that there are many other things that state lottery commissions can do to keep people coming back for more—and in some ways these techniques are not so different from those employed by tobacco companies or video-game makers. They rely on the psychology of addiction to lure people in and keep them coming back for more.

Lottery advertising is designed to appeal to the human instinct for excitement and risk-taking. Billboards feature large numbers and sexy graphics, while television commercials make use of music with an upbeat beat and flashing lights to attract attention. The glitz of the advertising is intended to create an impression that the lottery offers the possibility of instant riches—an illusion that has little to do with the randomness of the actual process.

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