The Gamble of Lottery

The lottery isn’t a particularly novel idea, nor does the concept of a state-sponsored gambling game seem especially scandalous. Lottery profits have long helped pay for everything from municipal firefighting to civil defense and, of course, public works projects like bridges and roads. But there is something about the way lotteries are run that raises eyebrows, at least among people who pay attention to these things. Lotteries aren’t just gambling games, after all; they’re a form of social engineering that aims to change people’s lives for the better by lowering their odds of success.

What makes the gamble of lottery so appealing is that, in a society defined by inequality and limited social mobility, it offers an unearned opportunity to get rich. As a result, the game can be addictive and dangerous for some players. In fact, state lottery commissions aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction — just as tobacco companies or video game manufacturers do. Everything about the way they market their products, from the design of the tickets to the math behind them, is designed to keep people playing.

To win a lottery, a person needs to guess a certain number of numbers from a range, or have machines randomly select numbers for them. The odds of hitting the winning combination are absurdly low, but that is precisely what attracts many players. In his new book, the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman explains that “the illusion of control” is what makes lottery play so tempting. To a player, the difference between one-in-three million odds and one-in-three-hundred-million odds doesn’t matter because the odds are so low to begin with.

This is why scratch-off tickets make up between 60 and 65 percent of lottery sales; they are aimed at lower-income players, who can afford to spend the most on them. Powerball and Mega Millions, by contrast, are more expensive and less popular with poorer people. Yet, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, there’s a certain moral inertia that persists about lottery gaming. As states cast around for solutions to budgetary crises that would not enrage their anti-tax electorate, the lottery became an increasingly popular option.

For many people, winning the lottery represents a last-ditch effort to escape from a bad situation — perhaps an abusive relationship or even bankruptcy — and start fresh. It’s not uncommon for winners to rely on a crack team of advisers to manage their money and keep them out of trouble. And there’s no denying that the money can do a world of good, helping to pay off debts, fund retirements and children’s college educations.

But for some, winning the lottery can backfire in an almost unimaginable way. It can spawn what Kahneman describes as an “illusion of meritocracy” in which lottery winners become accustomed to living on the edge and assuming that they will be able to handle anything that comes their way. When those same lottery winners suddenly lose their jobs, the financial cliff they’ve built for themselves can be catastrophic.