The Popularity of the Lottery


The lottery is a system by which prizes, such as money or goods, are allocated to individuals through an arrangement that depends wholly on chance. It can be expected that a significant proportion of people who wish to participate in the arrangement will do so. That is a socially acceptable consequence of the operation of the system, since it reflects the fact that people do not have equal chances of winning or losing, and that the distribution of prizes in the lottery depends on the relative probabilities of success.

Lotteries have been popular in many societies throughout history and continue to be widely popular in the United States. They have been used by private businesses as a marketing tool and have also been a means of collecting public revenues for the benefit of particular groups or purposes.

A key factor in the popularity of state lotteries has been the degree to which proceeds from the lottery are perceived as being devoted to some public purpose. This has been a particularly important element in the popularity of lotteries during times of economic stress, as it has provided an alternative to increased taxes or cuts in public services. However, studies have shown that the popularity of lotteries is independent of the objective fiscal circumstances of the state; they win public approval regardless of the actual financial situation of the state.

Most modern state lotteries have a variety of ways to distribute prize winnings. Some use a drawing that determines the winning numbers or symbols, but most of them also have other procedures for selecting winners. This may include thoroughly mixing the pool of tickets or counterfoils or using some other randomizing method. Computers are often used for this purpose because of their ability to store information about large numbers of tickets and generate random results.

In addition to picking their own numbers, many lottery players choose to let the computer pick them for them. There is usually a box on the playslip that can be marked to indicate this choice. People who play the lottery often believe that they are more likely to win if they buy more tickets, but this is not true. Each set of numbers has the same odds of being drawn as any other.

Those who choose not to participate in the lottery do so for a number of reasons. Most of them are concerned about the negative impact of gambling on society, and some worry that it leads to problems such as problem gambling. Others are simply unable to afford the cost of a ticket. Whether or not these concerns are valid, the bottom line is that the state is running at cross-purposes with the larger public interest by encouraging gamblers to spend their hard-earned money on the lottery. It is not appropriate for the government to promote gambling, especially when the benefits are so unclear. This article is excerpted from “The Lottery: The Public Purpose of Private Vice,” by Walter Clotfelter and John S. Cook, University of Chicago Press, 2014.