The Popularity of the Lottery

A lottery is a state-run contest in which players purchase tickets with numbers on them; those with the lucky numbers win prizes. But the term also can refer to any contest whose winners are chosen at random, such as finding true love or getting struck by lightning.

The lottery has become an extremely popular form of raising money, mainly because of its widespread appeal among the general public. In states with lotteries, about 60% of adults report playing at least once a year. But lottery supporters also develop extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (lottery games are typically sold at these stores), lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by these companies to state political campaigns are regularly reported), teachers (in those states in which proceeds are earmarked for education) and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue).

In fact, it is quite easy to determine why the lottery has such broad public support: Lotteries raise substantial amounts of money compared with the amount of tax increases or cuts to public services that would be needed to generate the same revenues. And in contrast to other sources of state funding, the lottery is viewed by politicians as a “painless” source of revenue.

But the lottery’s popularity is based on an illusory logic. As economists Dave Gulley and Michael Cook have shown, the odds of winning a lottery prize do not increase with the frequency of play or the number of tickets purchased for each drawing. Each ticket has independent probability, and a ticket’s chance of winning is not affected by its age or how many other tickets are purchased for the same drawing.