The Truth About the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them and organize state or national lottery games. In the United States, people spend upward of $100 billion on lottery tickets each year, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. The money raised by lotteries is often used for good causes, such as education. But what is the cost of playing these games, and are they worth it?

The word lottery is derived from the Latin verb lutor, meaning “to choose by lot.” It is generally accepted that the first use of the word in English was around 1569, and it appeared in print two years later. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word was probably originally a variant of Middle Dutch lotterie, a calque on Middle Low German löttere, meaning “to draw lots.” The word is also a calque on Old French loterie, meaning a sort of gaming or raffle.

In addition to being a form of gambling, the term lottery can also refer to any contest in which tokens are distributed or sold and the winning ones selected by lot:

There are many kinds of lotteries: financial, sports, animal husbandry, and even politics. Financial lotteries, where people pay a small amount of money to win a large sum of money, are perhaps the most common. Governments also operate state- or national-level lotteries to raise funds for specific purposes.

It’s not hard to see why lottery advertising focuses on the big jackpots. They’re very appealing to the human desire for instant riches, and they play on our irrational beliefs that we’ll be the one who makes it big, that there’s a meritocratic system of success out there.

Whether or not you believe in luck, most of us know that the odds of winning the lottery are incredibly slim. But how do we explain why so many people continue to play, especially those who have been doing it for years and spending $50 or $100 a week?

The answer is complex, and it may be that the truth lies somewhere in between. A lot of people just plain like to gamble, and that’s a perfectly reasonable impulse. But there are other forces at work, too. We’re living in a time of inequality and limited social mobility, and lottery ads are dangling the promise of quick wealth. This is the kind of thing that can make a lottery a dangerous place for humans.