The Lottery and Addiction


A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes awarded to holders of numbers drawn at random. Lotteries are often run by states and financed with proceeds from sales of tickets, but may also be private or charitable. The term can also refer to a game in which numbers are drawn in order to determine the winner of an event or to award a public service.

The drawing of lots to make decisions or to determine fates has a long history in human society, including several instances in the Bible. But using the lottery as a source of money or goods is comparatively recent. The earliest public lotteries to offer cash prizes were recorded in the Low Countries in the 15th century, where it was used to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

In the United States, state lotteries are a popular and profitable way for governments to raise money without raising taxes. As states cast around for solutions to budgetary crises that wouldn’t enrage voters, the lottery proved to be an appealing option: it provided “painless revenue,” Cohen writes, a way to maintain essential services without imposing taxes or losing support at the ballot box.

But, as with any other business, the lottery must keep customers coming back. To that end, everything from the color and layout of the tickets to the advertising campaign is designed to appeal to addiction psychology. It’s a strategy that’s not dissimilar to the tactics employed by tobacco companies or video-game makers.

Although many people play the lottery regularly, the actual distribution of players is skewed. According to one study, about half of all Americans buy a ticket at least once a year, but the majority of those players are low-income and lower educated. And a large percentage of those tickets are bought by a small group of the most avid participants: those who play every week and purchase a ticket on their birthday, a wedding anniversary, or some other special occasion.

It’s this group that the lottery targets with its advertising campaigns and design features, which are based on a deep understanding of how to manipulate people’s addictive behaviors. The most devoted players have quote-unquote systems that are irrational by statistical standards—about lucky numbers and stores and times of day—but they play because they know that the odds of winning the big prize are extremely long, and that winning is their only shot at a better life.

To attract new players, the big jackpots of contemporary lotteries grow to apparently newsworthy amounts more frequently, and the lottery’s promotional campaign is geared to the affluent. Meanwhile, the average American’s financial situation deteriorates. The income gap has widened, job security has been undermined, health-care costs have skyrocketed, and our long-standing national promise that education and hard work would lead to prosperity has proven hollow for most working people. For these reasons, it’s no surprise that a great deal of the country’s wealth is concentrated in very few hands.