The Dangers of Playing the Lottery


Whether we’re buying fifty-dollar scratch-off tickets from a check-cashing outlet or picking up Powerball and Mega Millions tickets like Snickers bars while buying groceries at a Dollar General, we’re participating in a lottery. Lotteries dangle the promise of instant riches, and there is an inextricable human impulse to play them. But that’s not the only thing they do: Lotteries also rely on psychological tricks to keep players hooked. They use everything from the way they advertise their prizes to how the odds of winning are calculated to manipulate their players’ behavior and psyche. And they’re not above using some of the same strategies that tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers do.

The origins of the modern lottery lie in seventeenth-century Genoa, where a betting game called “lotto” was popular among merchants and landowners to settle disputes and debts. Unlike traditional gambling, which involves playing against the house, lotto is based on guessing numbers drawn from a range. For example, the New York Lotto requires six numbers between one and fifty-nine, while the North Carolina Lottery asks for five numbers between one and forty-three. The odds of winning are astronomically low, yet lottery games revolutionized the gaming industry.

In the modern era, states became increasingly dependent on federal funds to finance public projects, and they began establishing state-run lotteries in response to voters’ growing distaste for paying property taxes. Amid this tax revolt of the late twentieth century, states enacted constitutional bans on gambling, but this was short-lived. The first American lotteries opened in 1964, and the rest followed suit.

Although there were concerns about the harm lottery games could do, those worries proved to be largely groundless. Lotteries raised enormous sums, providing money for everything from Civil War monuments to churches to Harvard and Yale. They also became entangled with the slave trade in unexpected ways. George Washington ran a Virginia-based lottery that awarded not only cash but also human beings, and Benjamin Franklin endorsed one that allowed enslaved people to participate as workers.

While many states now operate a national lottery, most of the largest prizes are awarded at local level. But even this is not without its dangers. For instance, studies have shown that the poor are more likely to buy tickets than the wealthy, and they tend to spend far more of their income on them. The result is that the lottery can become a form of addiction. According to the research, the more money you spend on a ticket, the more likely you are to purchase another one in the future.

In fact, the lottery is a big business, with Americans spending more than $80 billion on it every year. This money would be better spent on emergency funds and paying off credit card debts. Ultimately, the real problem with the lottery is not about luck but about poor financial habits. This is why it’s important to educate children about finances and how to save for the future.