The lottery is an odd sort of gambling: You buy a ticket for a small sum, and hope that the random drawing will give you a huge payout. It’s an ancient pastime, attested to in the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) and even the Bible, where numbers are used for everything from deciding who will keep Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion. But despite the odds of winning, lotteries are extremely popular, especially in America, where the average household spends more than $80 a year on tickets.
The reason is simple: humans just like to gamble. The chance of becoming wealthy quickly appeals to people, and when the jackpot gets really large, so do the advertising campaigns. But there’s a deeper problem: State lotteries aren’t above playing the psychology of addiction. They’re using strategies familiar to video-game makers and tobacco companies to keep you hooked.
Lotteries have long been a way for governments to raise money for everything from building roads to burying dead soldiers. It’s also a way to circumvent religious prohibitions against gambling. The early English colonists, for example, financed the European settlement of America through lottery schemes. And even today, many states organize lotteries to pay for things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
There’s a simple economic logic behind it: the more expensive a lottery jackpot is, the higher the sales will be. So a government might decide to go all in on an expensive jackpot to get as many dollars as possible from its citizens. And then it will keep raising the prize to increase its revenue.
But there’s an ethical dimension to all this, as well. When a government is going to sell you a product that can lead to addiction, it should make sure it’s regulated and accountable. But instead of limiting the number of available tickets or prohibiting advertising, lotteries often allow participants to mark boxes on their playslips that signal that they don’t care which numbers are picked and simply want a computer to choose for them.
This can be a very effective strategy for some players, but it’s also a waste of money. If you want to increase your chances of winning, you’ll need to buy a lot of tickets, and for the larger jackpots (like Powerball and Mega Millions), that means a ton of tickets. And the truth is that a lot of those tickets won’t be sold anyway.
So, while there is an inextricable human impulse to play the lottery, it shouldn’t be a solution for governments looking to avoid an anti-tax backlash. Instead, they should use the money to fund things that will benefit all of its constituents, not just a tiny minority of them who are going to be addicted to it for life. The rest of us should spend our lottery dollars wisely, and save that extra cash for emergency funds or paying down credit card debt. That might actually be a more effective form of self-care.