The Psychology of Lottery Playing

The Psychology of Lottery Playing


In the United States, more than $80 billion is spent on lottery tickets each year. It’s an enormous sum, and it’s one that’s largely wasted—people don’t win enough to build even an emergency fund, let alone pay off credit card debt. But why do so many people keep playing? What drives them to spend so much money on a game that’s almost guaranteed to make them worse off in the long run? In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Alex Cohen looks at the psychology of lottery playing.

Although making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history (it’s attested to in the Bible, for example), lotteries as a form of public revenue are comparatively recent. They were introduced in the fourteenth century, and quickly became popular across Europe; they also helped to fund several American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College, Union, and William and Mary.

The modern incarnation of state-run lotteries began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the profits to be made in gambling collided with an era of state funding crisis. With populations swelling and inflation skyrocketing, it became impossible for most states to maintain their array of services without raising taxes or cutting benefits—and both options were deeply unpopular with voters.

To fill the void, a number of states, especially those with large social safety nets, turned to the lottery as a way to raise money without imposing any major burden on their constituents. For a while, the approach seemed to work: Lottery revenues expanded dramatically, but then they leveled off and eventually began to decline. Lottery officials reacted by inventing new games to stimulate demand and attract new players.

Like a Snickers bar in the vending machine at a check-cashing outlet, these games are designed to lure people back for more. Everything about them, from the advertising campaigns to the math behind the odds, is calculated to appeal to the psychology of addiction. These strategies aren’t that different from those employed by tobacco companies or video-game makers, and it’s not surprising that state lotteries would employ them as well.

But despite the efforts of marketing experts, and the best intentions of government regulators, lottery revenues continue to stagnate. As Cohen demonstrates, this is not because people are bored with the old games; it’s because they simply aren’t getting enough chances to win. As long as the prize money remains a relatively small share of the total revenue—after all, the profits for the promoters and the cost of promoting the lottery must be deducted from the pool before any prizes can be awarded—chances of winning remain extremely low. This is why state lotteries are constantly innovating, to try to boost their flagging sales.