People who play lottery games know that the odds of winning are long. But they do so anyway, often because, in a world that seems increasingly bleak and uncertain, lotteries offer a glimmer of hope. The prize money isn’t just a few million dollars; it’s, sometimes, the only way up for some. So they keep buying tickets, even as they come up with all sorts of quote-unquote systems – about lucky numbers and stores and times of day to buy them – that can’t be based on statistical reasoning, but nevertheless feel real. They’re holding onto that sliver of a chance, the one that might allow them to break free from their financial and psychological traps.
A central aspect of any lottery is the pool or collection of tickets and their counterfoils from which winners are drawn. This pool must first be thoroughly mixed by some mechanical means – shaking, tossing, or now the use of computer systems – in order to ensure that the selection process is entirely random. Thereafter, a percentage of the pool is deducted for organizational costs and for profits or prizes to players. The remaining portion is allocated to a number or symbol that is selected by a drawing.
When the lottery was introduced to America in 1964, critics warned that it would erode social norms and increase crime. These concerns were ignored, not least because the lottery’s supporters argue that it provides states with a way to expand their social safety nets without burdening middle- and working classes by raising taxes. But these claims ignore the fact that most lottery winners don’t have enough income to raise their families above poverty levels and that most of the revenue generated by state lotteries is spent on the prize money – not on public services.
There are several reasons why lottery participation is so widespread. A primary message that lottery promotions convey is that the experience of buying and scratching a ticket is fun. This is an important message because it obscures the regressivity of the game and encourages people to treat it as entertainment, rather than as a serious gambling activity that requires considerable commitment and expenditure.
Moreover, many people are more likely to engage in this form of gambling if they believe that they’re “smart enough” to play well and win. This is a message that is especially appealing to men, who are more likely to gamble on the lottery than women, and to older individuals, who are more likely to be experienced in gambling-related behaviors such as alcohol and drug use.
The story is about more than the lottery, however. It’s about the way that small-town life, in all its peaceful guises, can turn against a person. It’s also about the ways that people can rise up against authority, even when it looks like they should be left alone. It’s an important lesson about the need for moral courage in our time of terrorism and climate change.