The Lottery and Its Addictions


The lottery combines the lure of money with the thrill of unpredictability. As a result, it can trigger all sorts of psychological responses, from the adrenaline surge that accompanies an Olympic finish to the gut-wrenching despair of a missed diagnosis. It’s no wonder that people find the game so seductive.

Historically, many Americans have had a mixed attitude toward gambling. While some religious leaders have always disapproved of it, others embraced the concept as a means to avoid high taxes and build America. In fact, a number of the nation’s first church buildings were paid for by lotteries. And in the nineteenth century, state lotteries were responsible for the construction of some of the nation’s best universities.

But, as Cohen explains, a problem emerged in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness about all the money to be made in lottery games collided with a crisis in state funding. As population growth, inflation, the Vietnam War, and welfare costs soared, it became harder for state governments to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which were wildly unpopular with voters.

The solution, many state lawmakers hoped, was the lottery. Dismissing long-standing ethical objections, advocates began to argue that since gamblers were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits. This strategy worked, at least for a while. But it did not address the deeper reason why people play, which is to escape from their problems.

As a result, many of the same issues that plague addictions to drugs or video games can be applied to lottery playing. The sexy advertisements, the bright colors, the math—everything about it is designed to keep people coming back for more. It’s not that different from the strategies used by tobacco companies or video-game makers, just under the auspices of the state.

It’s not just that state-run lotteries are addictive, they also generate a staggering amount of profit from “super users.” According to one estimate, about seventy percent of lottery players are what the Pew Charitable Trusts calls “frequent players,” meaning that they buy tickets at least once every week. In other words, they are the lottery’s core audience and its biggest source of revenue.

To keep these consumers hooked, lottery marketers try to strike a delicate balance between the odds of winning and the size of the prize. If the jackpots are too small, ticket sales decline. But, if the odds are too high, fewer people will play and the pool of potential winners will be smaller. As a result, lottery officials often increase or decrease the numbers of balls in a given drawing to alter the odds. This can make a big difference in the winnings of a single player, or the total jackpot. In addition, some states have experimented with new ways to increase the odds of winning, such as changing how much the numbers cost or how many are available. The goal is to maximize the number of people who play, and in turn increase the odds of winning.