The Growing Popularity of the Lottery

A lottery is an arrangement by which a prize (usually cash) is allocated to a number or symbols on tickets. The drawing, which can take many forms, is designed to ensure that winning the prize is purely random. Computers are often used in this process because of their capacity for quickly storing information about large numbers of tickets and their symbols.

Lotteries have long been popular, as early as the fourteenth century, when they were used to build town fortifications and help the poor in the Low Countries. When the practice reached England, Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first lottery, which was designed to raise funds for “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” Each ticket cost ten shillings, a substantial sum in those days. The winner received not only the prize money but also a get-out-of-jail card, and he or she was exempt from arrest for all crimes except murder and treason.

With a huge jackpot to lure people into buying tickets, the lottery has become an increasingly common form of gambling. But there are serious concerns about its addictive nature, as well as the fact that most people’s chances of winning are slim to none. In addition, the enormous taxes that must be paid on winnings often mean that a lucky winner ends up worse off than before.

In the nineteen sixties, Cohen writes, the popularity of the lottery grew alongside a crisis in state funding. The states, especially those that provided generous social safety nets, found it hard to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. This left them looking for ways to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air, and lotteries were the answer.

By offering an easy-to-organize, popular event that could raise money for everything from highways to parks to prison construction, the lottery became a powerful tool in the hands of state politicians. Its acclaim grew, too, because super-sized jackpots garnered massive free publicity on news websites and television, which in turn boosted ticket sales even more.

But, as the writer of a recent study on the lottery points out, the big prizes are not what really makes lotteries tick. The bigger problem, he says, is that the lottery offers us a way to rationalize our impulses to spend recklessly. The same is true of other government-sponsored gambling activities, like paying a fee to enter a national park to go camping or purchasing a new video game for the Wii.

In his book, Cohen explores the psychology behind our inability to understand how much our choices actually matter. He shows how a culture steeped in tradition can blind us to the true odds of winning and losing. It’s worth reading, whether or not you plan to play the lottery. (Photo credit: shirleyjackson/Shutterstock)