What is it About the Lottery That Attracts So Many People?

The word lottery comes from Middle Dutch loterie, a compound of Old English lotte “lot” and erie (“to draw”). Lotteries were first recorded in the Low Countries around the 15th century for raising funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. The lottery’s popularity grew after the Revolutionary War, when Congress relied on it to fund the Continental Army. George Washington managed several lotteries to win land and slaves, and Benjamin Franklin even organized a lottery to buy cannons for the city of Philadelphia.

Today, state lotteries are the most popular form of gambling in the United States, with about half of adults purchasing tickets each year. They are regressive in terms of who plays them, with those in the bottom quintile spending the largest share of their incomes on them—and often ending up worse off than they were before.

But what is it about this game of chance that draws so many people in? Is it just the gleam of that long-shot hope that someone, somewhere, will actually hit the jackpot? Or is there something more to it than that?

Lottery marketers are aware that the jackpots are what drive sales, so they focus on promoting their huge prizes. They also know that people have a tendency to believe they are being cheated when their numbers don’t come up, and they have figured out how to manipulate this irrationality by offering super-sized jackpots that generate a lot of free publicity.