In the United States alone, people spend over $80 billion every year on lottery tickets. While many people play for fun, others believe that winning the lottery is their only way out of poverty. The truth is that the odds of winning are extremely low, and you’re much better off putting that money towards an emergency fund or paying down your credit card debt. But despite the odds, lotteries have become an integral part of American culture. The reason? They make us feel good. They give us a tiny sliver of hope that maybe this time will be different.
The idea behind lotteries is that a small group of people will win a big prize. The winner is chosen through a random process. For example, if you pick three numbers out of 50, then the chances of you winning are one in fifty. But this doesn’t mean that any single set of numbers is luckier than another. You have a greater chance of winning if you choose the same number as someone else, but even then it’s very unlikely.
Lotteries have a long history, dating back to ancient times. They were used by the Romans (Nero was a fan) and appear in the Bible, where the casting of lots is used for everything from deciding who gets to keep Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion to selecting the next king of Israel. Throughout the centuries, they have been deployed as both a form of entertainment and a means of raising money for public works.
Until the 1970s, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with participants purchasing tickets for a drawing at some point in the future. But innovations in the 1970s changed all that, with the introduction of “instant games” and scratch-off tickets that allowed players to purchase a ticket for a small sum and receive a prize immediately. These games quickly became popular, and the industry began to grow.
Cohen argues that the popularity of the lottery grew in tandem with a broader shift in America’s national values, as the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties brought economic stagnation and an erosion of social safety nets. As income inequality widened, job security vanished, health-care costs skyrocketed, and the old promise that hard work would bring financial success and prosperity to all Americans started to fade, many people found comfort in the dream of a lottery jackpot.
As the popularity of the lottery soared, the debate over it shifted from whether or not it was a desirable public service to more specific issues, such as its supposed regressive impact on poorer citizens and the risk of compulsive gambling. But the core of the argument remains unchanged: if the entertainment value or other non-monetary benefits from playing outweigh the disutility of a monetary loss, then buying a ticket is a rational decision for any given individual. However, if those losses are greater than the gains, then it isn’t. And that’s where the lottery really comes into its own.