In 2021, people in the United States spent more than $100 billion on lottery tickets, making it the most popular form of gambling in the world. But what is it about lotteries that keeps us coming back for more? What is it about the numbers, the colors, the odds that make them so appealing and elusive? And why is it that, despite the inexorable fact that they are almost impossible to win, people keep playing them anyway?
The answer, according to a new book by David Cohen, is that the modern lottery began life in a time of crisis. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, America’s prosperity began to falter, as the income gap widened, job security and pensions declined, and health-care costs climbed. Suddenly, it became very difficult for state governments to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services-a combination that would have been unpopular with voters.
So, to fill the hole in their revenue streams, a handful of states turned to the lottery. And the rest followed suit. Today, it is the norm for most American states to have a lotto. In most cases, a portion of the profits are donated to good causes. This gives the lottery a veneer of social responsibility that it might not have otherwise enjoyed. It also allows it to avoid the stigma associated with traditional forms of gambling, such as casino gambling.
But even in the most reputable of lotteries, there are still many factors that push people to buy more and more tickets. Some of these are inextricable from the human impulse to gamble, but others are more subtle. Billboards touting huge jackpots, for example, are meant to drive ticket sales. In fact, lotteries have long understood that it is not just the size of the prize that matters to people. The odds of winning are also important.
As the New York Times reports, a study conducted in the seventeenth century found that a person’s odds of winning a lottery were proportional to the size of the jackpot. This means that as the jackpot got bigger, more and more people wanted to play. So, a savvy lotteries began to raise the odds of winning by adding more numbers. Today, the New York Lotto requires people to pick six numbers from one to fifty-nine. That means that the odds of winning are one in 3.8 million.
The same principle applies to other games of chance, including blackjack and roulette. In each case, the odds of winning are less than a thousand to one. This means that most players will lose money in the long run, but that some will make big wins. This is why the games are so appealing to so many people. In a world of inequality and limited social mobility, the lottery offers hope. For most people, however, it is a fool’s game.