What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game of chance, and its prizes are typically cash. The winners are determined by drawing lots, a process that’s often simplified to “flipping a coin.” The word lottery comes from the Dutch noun lot (“fate”) and the Dutch verb lotgeveren (“to draw lots”). The oldest operating lottery is the Staatsloterij in Belgium, which was established in 1826, but private lotteries existed long before then, as did public lotteries in colonial America. These were often used to finance a wide range of public projects, from the building of roads and bridges to schools and churches.

Lotteries are not just a form of taxation; they can also be a powerful social engineering tool for shaping public attitudes. The authors of Cohen’s book, for example, point out that lottery advertising is disproportionately visible in low-income neighborhoods and that a large percentage of lottery tickets are sold in those same communities. This is no accident. In the same way that tobacco and video-game manufacturers use psychology to keep their products in the hands of addicted consumers, state lottery commissions rely on the same tools to lure people into playing.

To entice people to spend money on their ticket, state lotteries promote the message that the prize amount will be a good return on investment. They do this by implying that winning the lottery will improve your life and those of your loved ones, and that you are doing a favor for the state (or children or whatever). This is a common strategy in gambling advertising, but it obscures the regressive nature of the lottery.

Lottery sales rise as incomes fall, unemployment grows, and poverty rates rise, and states have no choice but to embrace these games as a means of raising revenue that won’t rile anti-tax voters. They are hardly alone: As the authors of Cohen’s book observe, most other commercial products rise and fall in popularity according to economic fluctuations. Moreover, like many other commercial products, lottery sales increase when they are heavily promoted in poor neighborhoods.

The authors of Cohen’s book do not attempt to explain all the reasons for lottery sales, but they offer a few hypotheses. One is that lottery marketing appeals to people’s innate desire for excitement and achievement. Another is that it encourages the belief that you can win the lottery if you are smart enough to invest in a system, such as a computer, that will pick your numbers for you.

Perhaps most importantly, the enticement of super-sized jackpots drives lottery sales, because they get more attention on news websites and TV shows. And because the odds of winning a jackpot are proportional to the size of the pool, it’s possible to boost jackpots by making them more difficult to win. The New York Lotto launched in 1978 with one-in-3.8 million odds, but the odds have since climbed even higher—meaning that it is now harder than ever to win the top prize.

Categories: Gambling