What is the Lottery and Why Are We So Obsessed With Winning?


A lottery is a game of chance where people pay to have a chance at winning a large sum of money. Lotteries are often run by government and offer a variety of prizes, such as cars, cash, vacations and even houses. The lottery is a popular activity in the United States, where people spend over $80 billion per year on tickets. But what is it exactly, and why are we so obsessed with winning?

The origins of the lottery date back to ancient times, and there are references to it in the Bible, the Talmud and other religious texts. The practice has been used for centuries to distribute property, slaves and other valuable items. Lotteries were a common dinner entertainment in the Roman Empire, where guests would be given tickets for the chance to win prizes like silverware or other fancy items.

In colonial America, they helped finance many government projects, including paving streets and building wharves. They also served as a way for the Protestant colonies to raise money, despite strong anti-gambling sentiments. In the late twentieth century, with voters averse to raising taxes, state governments were desperately searching for ways to maintain essential services without enraging their constituents. Many turned to the lottery as a budgetary miracle, arguing that it could float entire states’ budgets and thus save them from having to raise other taxes.

But the lottery was a flawed solution to a fundamental problem. Cohen explains that a lottery’s appeal rested on the belief that it would give the government “access to funds of unimaginable magnitude,” enabling it to “maintain existing services without ever threatening the nation with another depression or even one more breathless recession.” This was false, as lottery profits were not nearly enough to cover costs. It was also an ethically dubious argument, as lotteries were essentially government-sponsored gambling.

Once the truth of this became clear, legalization advocates shifted tactics. Instead of trying to sell the lottery as a silver bullet that could float an entire state’s budget, they began to promote it as a tool for funding a specific line item, typically a popular and nonpartisan service, such as education or veterans’ affairs. This approach made it easier to campaign for, since a vote for the lottery was not necessarily a vote against gambling, but a vote for a worthy cause.

Finally, Cohen points out that the fact that most winnings are paid in a lump sum (at least in the U.S.) can make the prizes seem smaller than advertised, particularly when you take into account income tax withholdings and other deductions. This is counterintuitive to a large number of participants, who expect their winnings to be paid out over time as an annuity. In the end, it’s all about perception. The more skewed the odds, the bigger the prize seems and the more people will want to play. This is a basic principle of psychology, and it’s no wonder that the lottery has become such a big business.