Why Do People Play the Lottery?



A lottery is a game in which players pay a small sum of money for the chance to win a large prize. The chances of winning are very low, but many people play because they feel that the risk-to-reward ratio is attractive. In addition, lottery players as a group contribute billions to government receipts that they could use for other purposes—like saving for retirement or college tuition.

The simplest explanation for why people play the lottery is that they enjoy the opportunity to dream about what they would do with a huge windfall. But there are many other reasons. People also believe that the lottery is a low-risk investment. They can “invest” $1 or $2 for the chance to win hundreds of millions, and it’s a relatively painless way to raise funds.

In the 17th century, public lotteries were common in Europe. The British Crown used them to fund a variety of projects, including canals and bridges. In the colonies, lotteries were a popular method for raising funds to pay for local militias and fortifications. Privately organized lotteries raised even more, and helped build universities, like Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, William and Mary, and King’s College (now Columbia).

When state governments began to legalize lotteries after World War II, they saw them as a way to expand their social safety nets without raising especially onerous taxes on the middle class and working classes. But if you look at the numbers, it is hard to justify such claims.