Why People Still Play the Lottery


In a lottery, people pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a big prize. The chances of winning are extremely slim, but people still do it. The lottery has been around for centuries—Nero was a fan, and it’s mentioned in the Bible, where casting lots is used to determine everything from who gets Jesus’ garments after the Crucifixion to what town will receive the lion’s share of an inheritance.

Cohen’s article focuses on how lottery came to be such an integral part of American life, starting in the nineteen-sixties when rising incomes and population growth collided with an impending state funding crisis. State governments were spending more and more on social programs, but their tax bases were shrinking. So, in order to raise the necessary revenue, many states turned to lottery, which they marketed as a painless form of taxation.

As a result, people started buying into the fantasy of winning big money. They figured out how to beat the odds by picking numbers that corresponded to their birthdays, or the birthdays of their friends and family members. They learned that a certain store was a lucky spot to buy tickets, and they picked up all sorts of quote-unquote systems that aren’t backed up by statistical reasoning.

In the end, though, it’s all just luck. There are no “systems” that will guarantee you a win, and cheating the lottery is almost always a felony. But a lot of people seem to have convinced themselves that they’re playing the lottery rationally, even though they’re doing it for all the wrong reasons.