Why People Who Play the Lottery Are Not Irrational


The lottery is a form of gambling that offers people the chance to win prizes that are based on a process that relies wholly on chance. It has a long history and can be found in many different forms, from sports events to unit placements in subsidized housing to kindergarten places at a reputable public school. Whether it’s for a sports team or a cash prize, the basic idea is the same: participants pay an entry fee for a chance to win.

The first recorded lotteries to offer tickets with prize money in the form of money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century for a variety of reasons, from raising funds to build town fortifications to helping the poor. Those who buy a ticket do so because they think that the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits of winning outweigh the negative utility of losing the money they paid to play. This is the essence of rational choice theory, and it’s why people who play the lottery are not inherently irrational.

State-run lotteries were popular in the immediate post-World War II period, when states needed to expand their array of social safety nets and other services without imposing onerous taxes on middle- and working-class residents. In those days, “governments could make budget miracles appear seemingly out of thin air,” Cohen writes, by using a revenue source that would bring in billions but be largely ignored by voters: lotteries.

Politicians who favored lotteries argued that, since gamblers were going to spend money anyway, it made sense for the government to collect their ticket purchases. This reasoning had its limits—as historian Robert B. Reichlin has noted, it’s not really that different from saying that the government should also sell heroin—but it offered a convenient excuse for people who otherwise might have resisted the lottery’s spread.

For example, white voters who supported lotteries figured that the mainly black players would foot the bill for services they didn’t want to pay for themselves, such as better schools in urban areas. The practice was also tangled up with slavery in unpredictable ways, including George Washington’s management of a Virginia lottery that offered slaves as prizes and Denmark Vesey’s purchase of his freedom after winning a South Carolina lottery that included human beings.

Those who oppose lotteries argue that the gambling element in lottery games is addictive, and that people can lose a great deal of money on a small percentage of their incomes, resulting in regressive effects. But those who defend them have moved away from arguing that the lottery is simply a fun game to focus on two main messages: that the experience of playing is enjoyable, and that lottery dollars help fund important social services. Both are true, but focusing on the fun obscures how much of an impact lottery dollars can have on individual lives. This is a problem that requires a more holistic approach than one confined to statistics and policy.

Posted in: Gambling