The Psychology of the Official Lottery

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, as the nation’s financial inequality widened, pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and unemployment climbed, the lottery became an obsessive symbol of the intangible promise of unimaginable wealth. Whether buying fifty-dollar scratch-off tickets at a check-cashing place or picking up Powerball and Mega Millions tickets, the equivalent of Snickers bars, while paying for groceries, many Americans were drawn to the lure of the jackpot.

Government-sponsored lotteries are not uncommon in the world of gambling, and most states have one or more. However, they are unusual in the context of state governments, which are not usually in the business of promoting vice and encouraging addiction. But even so, lottery organizers are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction—their advertising campaigns, the look of their tickets and the math behind them are all designed to keep people playing as long as possible. This is not so different from the tactics used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers, it’s just done under a banner of public policy.

After decades of prohibition on moral and religious grounds, corruption scandals, and the prevailing belief that lottery money was going to poor people, New Hampshire approved the first modern state-run lottery in 1964. Other states soon followed suit. Advocates of legalization reframed the argument in favor of the game, Cohen writes: Instead of claiming that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they began to tout it as a way for legislatures to raise funds for a single line item—usually education or veterans or some other popular and nonpartisan service.