Why Do People Play the Lottery?


Lottery is a popular form of gambling where people pay to have a small chance of winning big. Although many people lose, there is a large group of committed gamblers who spend a substantial portion of their income on tickets. The lottery is the oldest example of an arrangement that allocates prizes by chance, and it has been used to raise money for a wide variety of purposes over time.

In the United States state governments grant themselves monopolies over the operation of lotteries; they are legally prohibited from licensing private companies to operate them, and they use all of their profits for government programs. The states organize the games, set the rules, and determine which items to include in the prize pool. Typically, the prize pool includes one or more very large prizes and several smaller prizes of less value.

While decision models based on expected value maximization can explain why some individuals choose to buy lottery tickets, they cannot account for all purchases. For example, the ticket provides entertainment value for some purchasers and allows them to indulge in a fantasy of becoming wealthy, which can outweigh the disutility of monetary loss. In addition, if the amount of winnings is high enough for some purchasers, the total utility obtained from non-monetary gain may also outweigh the disutility of a monetary loss.

It is important to understand why the lottery appeals to so many people. One factor is that it is seen as a way to fund government services, which is particularly appealing in times of economic stress. However, the objective fiscal circumstances of the state do not seem to have much impact on the extent to which the public approves the lottery.

The regressive nature of lottery play is also well documented. It has been found that a substantial portion of the players come from lower-income neighborhoods and are disproportionately low-education, nonwhite and male. In addition, lottery participation tends to decrease with increasing level of formal education and increases with age.

Lottery commissions have tried to address these concerns by emphasizing the social benefits of the lottery and promoting the idea that playing is fun. In recent years, the message has shifted to emphasize the experience of scratching a ticket. This obscures the regressive nature of lottery play and makes it more difficult for people to understand why so many of them continue to play.

The regressive nature of the lottery is partly due to its reliance on chance, but it also has a structural basis in the American political system. The monopoly status of the lottery, the distribution of authority over its operations, and the dependence on revenues have all contributed to its continuing evolution. Lottery policy is made piecemeal, and the general welfare of the general population is taken into consideration only intermittently. The result is that few, if any, state officials have a coherent “gambling policy.” This article looks at the evolution of the lottery industry, and at the problems that arise as a consequence of its structure and operation.