The Dangers of the Lottery

Lottery is an ancient pastime, popular in the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan), and attested to throughout the Bible, where the casting of lots for everything from military battles to marriage matches is described. In America, the lottery took off after World War II, when state governments were able to expand their social safety nets without onerous tax increases or cuts in public services, but they had to find ways to fund this expansion that wouldn’t anger an anti-tax electorate. Lotteries provided that solution.

In many states, people buy tickets to win the grand prize, which might be a million dollars or more. But to win, they have to match the right combination of numbers. And the more numbers they choose, the more likely they are to lose. This is not a game for the faint of heart. But what if winning wasn’t so impossible? What if there was a way to play the lottery without having to bet the farm on a single ticket?

That’s the promise of the Pick Three and Four drawings that run on most television channels and online. You can pick your own numbers or let the computer do it for you. Either way, you’ll be a long shot to win, but there’s a small sliver of hope that your numbers will come up, even if they’ve never been drawn before or have been the same number for decades.

These slivers of hope are what drives lottery sales, and the profits that come with them. But there’s something else at play as well, and it has to do with a basic human impulse: Many of us just plain old like gambling. This is why the lottery draws so much attention, but it is also why it’s so dangerous.

To be sure, defenders of the lottery sometimes cast its critics as “taxing the stupid,” arguing that lottery players don’t understand how unlikely it is to win or simply enjoy the thrill of playing. But this argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Lottery sales rise as incomes fall and unemployment increases, and state lotteries are often promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino.

In addition, the slivers of hope are undermined by a second message that lottery promoters rely on, which is that people who don’t win should feel good about having played because they did their civic duty by buying a ticket. This is a misleading argument that blurs the regressivity of the lottery and obscures the psychological forces at work. It’s not unlike the strategy used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers, but it’s rarely done under government auspices.