The Psychology of the Lottery


A lottery is a process for distributing something that’s scarce but still high in demand, such as kindergarten placement at a reputable school or units in a subsidized housing block. It is also a game where paying participants choose groups of numbers and have machines randomly split them. The participants then win prizes if enough of their numbers are matched. This type of lottery is common in sports and finance.

The lottery has been around since ancient times, first as an amusement at dinner parties (Nero was a fan) and then to raise money for town fortifications or help the poor. The first lotteries in Europe to offer tickets for sale with cash prizes were organized in the 15th century, although earlier lotteries had raised funds by giving away articles of unequal value, from dinnerware to cloaks and other clothing.

What’s more, there are a few things about the lottery that are unmistakably addictive. It’s not just the inextricable human impulse to gamble, although that’s definitely a factor. The big one is that the bigger the jackpot, the more people want to play. This is counterintuitive, but that’s how it works. When jackpots get large enough to make the news, they attract more attention and increase the odds of winning.

As a result, state lotteries are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction. Their advertising campaigns, the design of their tickets and even the math behind them all work to keep players hooked. It’s not all that different from the way governments encourage the consumption of alcohol or tobacco, but it’s usually done under a more benevolent banner.