The Truth About the Lottery


The lottery is a huge industry, contributing billions of dollars to state budgets every year. Some people play for fun, but others believe it’s their only chance of a better life. While most people know that the odds of winning are low, they keep playing. This is partly because of the perceived social benefits of the game. But the truth is that it’s a waste of money and a bad way to spend time. Here are a few things to consider before you purchase a ticket.

The first recorded lotteries with prizes in the form of cash were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century. The practice proved popular as a painless method for raising funds to build town fortifications, and also to help the poor. It spread to England, where it became common for the crown to hold state-sanctioned lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes.

By the eighteenth century, lotteries had become a ubiquitous feature of British society. They were promoted by public houses, mainly as a way to boost profits, but they also appealed to the moral sensibility of the era. Thomas Jefferson, for example, favored the idea and Alexander Hamilton understood that the public “would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large certainty of gaining nothing.”

In America, lotteries were often tangled up with slavery, sometimes in surprising ways. George Washington managed a lottery in Virginia that offered human beings as prizes, and one formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, won the South Carolina lottery and used the prize money to buy his freedom. More generally, the popularity of lotteries was driven by the need for states to raise revenue without imposing taxes or cutting services, which were unpopular with voters.

Lotteries are a big business, and their marketers are not above availing themselves of psychological research on addiction. Everything about them, from the look of the tickets to the math behind them, is designed to keep people coming back for more. It’s not much different than the strategies that tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers use, though it’s rarely done under the auspices of government.

People who play the lottery aren’t always aware of the risks and benefits. Many of them have these quote-unquote systems that aren’t backed up by statistical reasoning—systems about lucky numbers and stores and times to purchase tickets. They also have a deep-seated belief that the long odds of winning are justifiable because the non-monetary value they get from the experience is so high.

In some cases, these beliefs are right. But in most of the country, the odds are very, very low, and it’s a bad way to spend your time. It’s especially important to remember that when you’re purchasing your next ticket.