Across the United States, people spent over $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021. But that number doesn’t even tell the whole story. State lottery commissions aren’t above using every trick in the book to keep players hooked—not that there’s anything all that surprising about this. Tobacco companies use similar tactics, and video-game makers do the same; it’s just that government agencies aren’t usually in the business of promoting addiction.
The word “lottery” is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or chance; it refers to any distribution of goods or property by chance, as in a prize drawing. The practice of distributing things by lot dates back to ancient times. It’s mentioned in the Old Testament, and Roman emperors used it to give away land and slaves at Saturnalian feasts. It also helped fund the European colonization of America, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.
In the 19th century, state-sponsored lotteries became more common, and they were used to raise money for a wide range of public projects, including building the British Museum and the repair of bridges. Privately sponsored lotteries were also popular, and the Boston Mercantile Journal reported that 420 had been held the previous year in eight states.
But in the nineteen sixties, growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. As inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War began to eat away at America’s prosperity, many states, particularly those with generous social safety nets, found themselves in desperate straits. They needed to boost revenue, but raising taxes or cutting services was a nonstarter with voters.
Advocates of state-run gambling argued that since gamblers were going to do it anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits. They disregarded ethical objections to gambling and marketed lotteries as a way to pay for programs that voters favored—often education, veterans’ benefits, or public parks. This strategy worked, and lotteries quickly became a fixture in American society.
It’s important to understand why lotteries are so effective at persuading players to spend their hard-earned dollars. The answer, I believe, lies in the psychology of addiction. Lotteries are based on the same psychological principles that drive addictive behavior in all kinds of other contexts—from video games and sports betting to cigarettes and horse races. And they’re particularly powerful in a culture that glorifies success and demonizes failure.
To succeed in a lottery, it helps to have lots of money and to be smart. But to win, you need a little luck. And if you’re lucky enough to be one of the winners, you’ll probably do just fine. The problem is, luck can run out at any time—and it’s usually when you need it the most. People who sleep paupers and wake up millionaires aren’t likely to go quietly into the night. And when that happens, the slumbering paupers may find themselves in a very big bind.