Lottery is not only one of the world’s most popular pastimes, but it also happens to be a pretty effective way to raise money for public projects. This counterintuitive phenomenon, which is a big reason why Alexander Hamilton was so opposed to state-sponsored lotteries, works like this: The bigger the jackpot gets, the more people want to play. That’s why it is important for lottery organizers to keep jackpots high. To do so, they often lift prize caps or add more numbers to the mix-for example, going from one in fifty thousand to one in three hundred million.
But it’s not just about jackpot size: There are a number of other factors that affect the likelihood of winning. For one thing, a ticket is a lot cheaper if you buy it in smaller increments, or fractions. That’s because the money paid for a single ticket is passed up through a chain of lottery sales agents until it reaches the lottery organization, and then pooled with the money placed as stakes by other participants. This practice is common in most national lotteries, and it means that a person can actually purchase tickets at an even lower cost than if they were bought individually.
The first records of lotteries with prizes in the form of money date to the fifteenth century, when a number of Low Countries towns held public lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor. But the modern incarnation of lottery started in the nineteen-sixties, when states that provided generous social safety nets found themselves facing budget crises that could not be resolved by raising taxes or cutting services. As Cohen explains, many of these states were in the Northeast or the Rust Belt, and they saw the lottery as a way to get out of paying for public services with especially onerous taxes on working-class voters.
Those who win the lottery aren’t stupid; they know that their odds of winning are long. But they’re still willing to make the gamble because of the entertainment value, or the non-monetary value, that they get from the game. As a result, they make all sorts of irrational decisions, such as buying tickets only at certain stores and times of day. They also have quote-unquote systems that they swear by, even though they aren’t based in logic or math.
Rich people do play the lottery, of course, but they tend to spend much less of their income on it than poor people do. Moreover, because they’re affluent and can afford to spend a small percentage of their wealth on tickets, they’re unlikely to be as affected by the psychological addiction that lottery games create. But even so, the lottery’s psychology is a lot like that of gambling machines and video-games: It’s designed to make players keep coming back for more. This is not a surprise, as the lottery’s marketing strategies are no different than those of tobacco companies or makers of booze-filled games.