The Psychology of Lottery Gambling


Almost all states run lotteries to raise money for public projects. The big draw is the jackpot, which typically involves picking six balls out of a set of 50 (although some games use fewer or more). State lottery commissions promote their products by appealing to two psychological impulses: escapism and loss aversion. These are not unique to the lottery; tobacco companies and video-game makers also harness these incentives. But the lottery is a government enterprise, so its exploitation of these urges has a different ethical significance.

Lotteries are not without their detractors, including people who believe that government should not endorse gambling or otherwise allow its profits to be pocketed by private corporations. But in the post-World War II era, as state governments searched for ways to finance their social safety nets without provoking an angry, anti-tax electorate, lotteries took hold. State legislators argued that if people were going to gamble anyway, why not let them do it with the government’s money? The argument was flawed on multiple fronts.

First, it ignored the fact that many states’ citizens were already spending a sizable share of their incomes on other forms of gambling. And second, it ignored the fact that lotteries are not just about winning money. In addition to the jackpot, they offer a range of other benefits, from entertainment value to social connections, to the sense of participation and community. The utility of those benefits may well outweigh the disutility of a monetary loss.

While the prevailing argument for state-sponsored gambling focuses on the benefits to society, a more accurate explanation of its attraction lies in the psychology of addiction. People who play the lottery are addicted to risk, and it is this addiction that fuels their irrational behavior. They spend $50, $100 a week on tickets because they believe that they are in a “lucky” game with good odds, and they will continue to play as long as the jackpot keeps growing.

As the prize grows, ticket sales grow, and jackpots tend to generate headlines that encourage more people to play. But if the odds of winning are too low, ticket sales decline. To counter this, some lotteries increase or decrease the number of balls in a drawing to change the odds.

The practice of dividing property or granting prizes by lot is as ancient as human history. The Old Testament instructs Moses to divide land by lots, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property. In modern times, a lottery is a method of distributing something that is limited but in high demand, such as units in a subsidized housing block or a vaccine for a raging virus. It is not an ideal system for allocating resources, but it does have advantages in some cases. This is especially true when the cost of a particular resource is borne by a relatively small group of people. In those circumstances, a lottery can serve as a way to distribute wealth in a fair and equitable manner.