The Lottery and Its Psychological Tricks

The Lottery and Its Psychological Tricks


Lottery, a game of chance in which participants pay for a ticket and then select a set of numbers or have machines randomly spit them out, has roots that go back centuries. The casting of lots is mentioned in the Bible, and in Roman times emperors used it for everything from distributing slaves to deciding who should get to keep Jesus’ clothes after his Crucifixion. But, as Cohen argues, it’s the modern financial lottery that has taken hold of the popular imagination. Its obsession with unimaginable wealth has coincided with a decline in the security that working people enjoy. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, income inequality widened, job security eroded, health-care costs climbed, and our long-standing national promise that hard work would make you better off than your parents ceased to be true for most people.

In the early days of the American lottery, state governments saw it as a way to raise money for everything from town fortifications to school construction. The lottery was an essential part of the social safety net that allowed many states to expand their services without imposing onerous taxes on their working classes, but this arrangement began to crumble in the nineteen-sixties, as inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War sapped states’ budgets. By the seventies, state governments found themselves scrambling to find revenue sources that didn’t enrage their anti-tax voters.

While rich people do play the lottery (and have won some of the biggest jackpots ever), they buy far fewer tickets than the poor. In fact, a recent study found that people making more than fifty thousand dollars per year spend on average just one percent of their income on lottery tickets. Those earning less than thirty thousand dollars spend thirteen percent. It’s a similar story when it comes to sports betting.

The lottery industry has moved away from the idea that winning is good and that playing the lottery is a civic duty, and it’s relying on two messages primarily to keep people hooked. The first is that the experience of scratching a ticket is fun. And the other is that a small percentage of your income spent on tickets can make you rich.

As with the tobacco industry and video-game manufacturers, lottery commissions are not above availing themselves of psychological tricks that encourage addiction. Everything from the look of the tickets to the odds on offer is designed to keep you coming back for more.

The problem is that the chances of winning aren’t much bigger if you buy more tickets. A mathematical analysis by a Georgia Tech mathematician found that, after buying enough tickets to cover all possible combinations, the odds of hitting the winning combination actually shrinks. And it takes even more tickets to win the jackpot, and so the amount you have to spend on them rises. This is why some players develop their own strategies to pick the right number, such as choosing numbers that are more often winners and avoiding those that have been recently won.