The Truth About Winning the Lottery


In the United States, people spend billions of dollars on lottery tickets every week. While many of them play just for fun, some think winning the lottery will solve their problems and give them a better life. Lotteries are just one more sign of our society’s obsession with money, but they also reinforce false beliefs about the nature of chance and how people should treat others.

The most common message from state lotteries is that you should feel good about yourself for playing because you’re helping your local government. But there’s another message in the background: that you should be willing to gamble your hard-earned money on the next big jackpot. This underlying assumption is why lottery billboards show large jackpot amounts, but rarely the odds of winning. And it’s why so many people are willing to pay big bucks for a chance at instant riches that will never come.

A lottery is a game of chance where the winner is chosen by drawing lots. The first recorded use of a lottery was in the Chinese Han Dynasty between 205 and 187 BC, when the head of a family would draw a folded slip of paper with a black spot. The head of the family that selected the slip could then win food, clothing or even slaves if their luck held out.

During the late-twentieth century, when America was expanding its social safety nets but “defined politically by an aversion to taxes,” Cohen writes, state governments turned to lotteries as budgetary miracles. They hoped that the revenue they generated from ticket sales, which were often regressive, would be enough to avoid raising taxes and thus rile voters.