The lottery is a popular form of gambling that draws its roots from centuries of ancient history. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and divide its land by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves at Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries also came to America, where they helped fund the building of towns, churches, colleges, and canals. In the nineteen-sixties, however, the popularity of the game accelerated, coinciding with a decline in financial security for most Americans: pensions eroded, inflation and health-care costs rose, and the long-held national promise that hard work would eventually make them richer than their parents became increasingly hollow.
The modern lottery was promoted by its advocates as a way to fill state coffers without raising taxes, keeping money in the pockets of average citizens. But this premise was largely unfounded, as Cohen explains. The first legal lotteries brought in surprisingly small sums—a fraction of what the proponents had imagined. In some cases, lottery revenue was even a net drain on the state budget.
In the modern lottery, players choose a number or a combination of numbers from one to fifty-nine and hope to match those to the winning numbers drawn by computer. Depending on the type of lottery, the prize can be anything from a television set to a new home. In many states, winners can choose between a lump-sum payment and an annuity that yields periodic payments over time. In either case, a winner will receive a far smaller amount than the advertised jackpot, because of income and withholdings that deduct from the prize.
Despite their low chances of winning, lottery games can have significant emotional and psychological consequences for the players. Lotteries also have a profound effect on the social fabric of communities, especially those in which they are highly concentrated. In some instances, the lottery has become a substitute for family gatherings and other forms of entertainment.
The people who run the lottery are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction, and Cohen shows that they use everything from advertising campaigns to the look of the tickets to design a product that will keep players coming back for more. In this regard, they are no different from the strategists of tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers.
Though many people have tried to stop playing the lottery, it has proven incredibly difficult. People tend to rationalize their behavior, arguing that they aren’t really spending their money on the chance of becoming rich, that they are just buying a little entertainment. The truth is, however, that most lottery players aren’t rational at all. For most, the disutility of a monetary loss is outweighed by the combined utility of the entertainment value and the psychological gratification that comes with picking a number.