Why Do People Still Play the Lottery?


Few people would accept a straight trade of a dollar for fifty cents, and it is irrational to participate in lotteries where the expected value of winning a prize is lower than the cost of the ticket. This is the case, for example, with Powerball and Mega Millions, where you are more likely to become president of the United States, be struck by lightning, or get eaten by a shark than win a grand prize worth millions of dollars.

Yet many people participate in state-sponsored lotteries. Why? Most states justify the lottery by arguing that the money goes to public programs and benefits. But research shows that the popularity of lotteries does not depend on a state’s objective fiscal situation; the popularity of a lottery is related to its perceived benefits and to people’s attitudes toward gambling in general.

It also depends on how much time and effort a person spends making decisions about how to buy tickets. For a busy person, buying lottery tickets online may be the best option. These sites make the decision process easier by allowing people to enter multiple numbers and then choosing their favorite numbers automatically. Some sites also offer the option to skip a step and let the computer pick a random set of numbers instead.

Some sites make money by charging a small subscription fee to users who want to use their service. Others monetize their service by selling advertisements on their websites.

In the past, lottery ads commonly misled people about the odds of winning a prize (the advertised jackpot is often far higher than the actual value that will be paid in future years, when inflation and taxes have eroded it); and they inflate the amount of money a winner can expect to receive. The ubiquity of these kinds of ads has contributed to a sense that lotteries are unfair and deceptive.

As far back as the Han dynasty (205–187 BC), Chinese people used a form of lottery called keno to select workers for government projects. The earliest European lotteries were private in nature, with townspeople raising funds for things like the fortification of their cities or to help the poor. In the 15th century, Francis I of France allowed lotteries for public profit in some of his cities.

A modern public lottery is a business that aims to maximize revenues, and advertising necessarily focuses on persuading target groups to spend their money on tickets. But promoting gambling raises ethical questions, particularly when the promotion is carried out by a state, which has a responsibility to protect its citizens from social problems like poverty and problem gambling. Moreover, state-sponsored lotteries are at cross-purposes with the public interest because they dangle a false promise of quick riches in an environment of inequality and limited upward mobility. It is not clear, however, whether a lottery can be a legitimate alternative to direct payments to participants when sufficient resources are available to do so.