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Why Do People Like to Play the Lottery?

Whether you buy a ticket to win the Mega Millions or Powerball jackpots, or simply prefer to spend your money on a scratch-off ticket for $1000, the lottery is an inherently risky proposition. But what’s more surprising is how many people seem willing to gamble on it, despite knowing that the odds are stacked against them.

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history—including multiple instances in the Bible—but the use of lotteries for material gain is more recent. The first lottery to distribute prize money was held in 1466, in Bruges, Belgium, for the stated purpose of providing assistance to the poor. The modern state lotteries of the United States were born in the immediate post-World War II era, when states sought new revenue sources to finance an expanding array of social safety net services without especially onerous taxes on middle-class and working class families.

Lottery supporters argue that the proceeds are used to improve public services, such as education. This argument has considerable appeal, particularly in times of economic stress, when it’s easy for voters to conceive of lotteries as a “painless tax” that will spare them higher state taxes and cuts to critical services. But studies have found that lottery popularity is surprisingly unrelated to a state’s objective fiscal circumstances.

There are several reasons for the lottery’s popularity, including an inextricable human impulse to gamble and a sense of social obligation to support public programs. But it’s also true that people don’t like to think about the risks involved in the lottery, and they often feel cheated when they lose.

While there are differences in lottery play by socio-economic status and other factors, such as gender, age, racial/ethnic identity, and religious affiliation, there are also some consistent patterns. For example, men tend to play more than women; blacks and Hispanics play more than whites; and older people play less than young people. There’s even a tendency for lottery play to decline as formal education increases.

In addition, critics charge that much of the lottery’s advertising is deceptive, commonly presenting misleading information about the odds of winning (lotto jackpot prizes are paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the current value); inflating the amount of prize money; and so on.

In short, the lottery is a system of gambling that exploits an element of human nature that can’t be changed by laws or regulations. But the story of Shirley Jackson’s short story shows that this isn’t just a moral failing: it’s a societal one. It reveals the ease with which we condone such abuses in conformity to our cultural beliefs and customs. It’s a lesson we should take to heart. —Shirley Jackson, from The Lottery, by permission of the publisher.

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