Lottery Games Are Sending a Bigger Message to Americans


Lottery is a huge business that raises billions each year for state governments. It is also the most popular form of gambling in America, with people spending upward of $100 billion on tickets every year. But there’s a much bigger message that lottery games are sending to Americans. They’re dangling the possibility of instant riches in an era of limited social mobility.

The idea of winning the lottery goes back centuries. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of the Israelites and divide their land by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property as entertainment at lavish Saturnalian feasts.

Nowadays, most state-run lotteries offer a wide range of different games, from scratch-off tickets to daily pick-three and pick-four games. They may have different prize amounts, but the basic structure is the same: pay a small amount of money, select a group of numbers or have machines randomly spit them out, and then hope that enough of your numbers match those picked by a machine to win a big jackpot.

But while the odds of winning are pretty low, many players try to improve their chances by purchasing more tickets or selecting specific numbers. But there’s a difference between what people think will improve their chances of winning and the actual mathematical probability, Harvard professor Mark Glickman previously told CNBC Make It. Buying more tickets does not increase your chances of winning, and a strategy based on picking the same numbers over and over is not foolproof.

So why do so many Americans play the lottery? One possible explanation is that people buy it for the psychological satisfaction they get from dreaming and imagining about what they would do with the money. But this rationale can’t be accounted for by decision models based on expected value maximization. In other words, if the cost of tickets is higher than their expected value, someone who maximizes expected utility should not buy them.

Another possible reason is that people feel a sense of civic duty to play the lottery. States promote the idea that buying a ticket is good for society because it raises revenue for things like education or public infrastructure. But even if the money does help some people, it doesn’t necessarily offset the costs for those who lose.

Lottery games are a massive industry that has long influenced American culture and our ideas of success. But the messages they send about instant wealth are a distortion of our values, and it’s important that we recognize them. Hopefully, with more awareness, we can create a fairer system that’s worthy of our hard-earned dollars.