Why Do People Like to Play the Lottery?


A lot of people like to play the lottery. Some win a prize that lets them close debts, buy a luxury home, travel the world or even just move up in life. But, in the process, they can often end up worse off than before they won. And the odds of winning are extremely slim. In fact, there is a greater chance of being struck by lightning than of winning a Mega Millions jackpot.

But why do so many Americans play? The answer has a lot to do with the societal psyche of meritocracy, which is fueled by the belief that anyone who works hard enough can become rich someday. But there is also the inextricable human impulse to gamble, and state-sponsored lotteries are shrewdly exploiting this. They promote their enormous jackpots as “instant riches,” and advertise them on billboards that are seen by a huge percentage of potential players.

In addition, the majority of lottery proceeds go to retailers (lottery shops), suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by lottery-supplier executives are regularly reported), teachers in states where revenues are earmarked for education and other public services, and state legislators, who quickly get used to the extra revenue. But the principal argument that lottery officials use to gain and retain public support is that it enables them to raise large amounts of money without raising taxes or cutting other state spending. That may be true, but it obscures the regressivity of the lottery’s benefits.