Lottery – The Promise of Instant Riches


Lottery is a form of gambling in which tickets are sold and prizes are drawn. Prizes may be money, goods, or services. A lottery is usually organized so that a percentage of the proceeds is donated to good causes. The first lotteries were recorded in Europe in the 15th century, when various towns held public lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor. In the United States, private and public lotteries were common during the 18th century and were used to finance construction of many major American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College (now Columbia). Lotteries also raised funds for other projects, such as supplying weapons for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

The state government is almost always the biggest winner from lottery drawings. Roughly 44 cents out of every dollar spent on a lottery ticket goes to the state government, and that far outweighs the funds generated by corporate income taxes. It’s a huge sum of money and it helps explain why 45 states have lotteries and not just those that have casinos, sports betting, or online gambling.

There are some people who buy lottery tickets on a regular basis, often for years at a time. I’ve interviewed a few such people, people who spend $50 or $100 a week on their tickets. These people defy the expectations that might be formed about them, the expectation that they are irrational and don’t understand how the odds work. What they do understand is that they enjoy the gamble, and they’re willing to pay for the chance at a big payout.

But it’s not just that, it’s the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. This is the underlying message that is being conveyed to those who buy tickets. And this is a powerful message that can’t be escaped. If you drive on the highway and see billboards for the Mega Millions or Powerball, it’s clear that the lottery is trying to get your attention by promising you wealth and a better life if only you will buy a ticket.

In most countries, where lotteries are legal, winnings can be received in a lump sum or as an annuity payment. The amount of the lump sum is generally less than the advertised jackpot, because of income taxes that must be withheld. Many winners, especially in the U.S., choose to receive their prize as a one-time lump sum rather than as an annuity, because they expect the lump sum to be greater than the advertised amount.

The purchase of lottery tickets cannot be explained by decision models based on expected value maximization, since the tickets cost more than the potential gains. However, more general models based on utility functions that include factors other than the lottery’s outcomes can account for lottery purchases. These models can capture risk-seeking behavior. They also allow us to describe the role of emotions in lottery purchases.

Posted in: Gambling