Why the Lottery Is Still Popular


The lottery is a popular game, and it’s not just the chance of winning big that attracts people to play. Lotteries also appeal to a deep human desire for hope. They give people the chance to see that there is, at least, some way out of the trap of poverty and despair. And they do it by dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.

It has been a long time since the first keno slips were drawn in ancient China, but the lottery is still very much with us. It is now a major source of state revenue, and it continues to grow in popularity. The most recent report from the Federal Trade Commission found that more than half of adults play a state-sponsored lottery at least once a year. It is one of the few games that have broad public support, and despite criticisms that it is addictive and has a negative effect on poorer people, lotteries seem to be here to stay.

In states that have lotteries, there is a general consensus that the money raised by the lottery should be used for some specific public good, such as education or health care. This argument works well during times of economic stress, and it is often a factor in the decision to adopt a lottery. But it is not necessarily related to a state’s actual fiscal condition, and it tends to lose its strength as the economy improves.

Whether a lottery is an effective form of state revenue depends on the expected utility of the monetary prize for each individual who plays. If the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits of playing exceed the disutility of losing, then the purchase of a ticket represents a rational choice for the player. This is why a large jackpot tends to drive lottery sales, and it is also why a number of states have increased or decreased the odds to boost sales.

While the success of lotteries relies on a combination of factors, the underlying psychology is perhaps the most important. A win in a lottery can provide an immediate boost to a person’s self-esteem, and it can reinforce the belief that he or she is a responsible citizen who makes wise decisions. The enduring popularity of the lottery suggests that these emotional effects are not only powerful, but pervasive. In a society where the chances of winning are so low, the lottery has become the ultimate expression of hope. And that, ultimately, is its most valuable trait. It’s why even those who know the odds are willing to buy a ticket, and why it’s such an attractive business model for states.