Why Do People Keep Playing the Lottery?


a gambling game or method of raising money, as for some public charitable purpose, in which tickets are sold for a drawing to determine the winners. The prizes may be cash or goods. Lotteries are often regulated by governments to ensure fairness and legality.

Lotteries are not only popular but also lucrative, accounting for more than half of state-sanctioned revenue in the United States. But their popularity is a double-edged sword: They can also reinforce some of society’s most persistent inequalities. The majority of lottery players are lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite, and they make up a large share of total ticket sales. In addition, a few jackpots have grown to apparently newsworthy sizes, encouraging more people to play in the hope of winning.

The odds of winning are astronomically bad, but there’s still that small sliver of hope that you might just win the big one. In this article, I talk to lottery players—people who have been playing for years, spending $50 or $100 a week on their tickets—to try and understand why they keep doing it.

The first known lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. The word lottery is probably from French loterie, from Italian lotto and Frankish *lotta, a calque on Middle Dutch loterij or *loterje, from Old English hlot “lot, portion, reward, prize,” which is possibly a loanword from Germanic (compare Middle High German holte). The prizes in modern lotteries are typically fixed amounts of cash or goods, with the organizers taking out profits and expenses before distributing the remaining proceeds to the winners.