Why People Play the Lottery

The casting of lots to decide matters has a long history, including several examples in the Bible. In modern times, lotteries are an important source of government revenue in many states. Lotteries are criticized for their compulsive nature, regressive effect on lower-income groups, and other issues of public policy. But a deeper understanding of the reasons that people play them is instructive for assessing how we make decisions.

Once established, state lotteries rarely change course or abandon their original goals. Public officials in control of the industry — whether state agencies or publicly owned corporations — become accustomed to a steady flow of funds and the political pressures that accompanies it. And because lottery policy is often made piecemeal, rather than in a comprehensive way, the interests of the public are rarely taken into account.

In the early twentieth century, when New Hampshire launched the modern era of state lotteries, states were looking for ways to expand their services without incurring heavy taxes on working families. They also hoped that a new revenue stream might help to tamp down the ferocity of an antitax revolt that was underway.

Rich people do play lotteries, of course; but they buy fewer tickets than poor people and the amounts of money they spend are proportionally much smaller. The wealthy also tend to have more clear-eyed awareness of the odds: They know that, despite what they believe, it is extremely unlikely that they will win. Nevertheless, they persist in buying tickets because there is still that sliver of hope that, one day, it could be them.

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