The Psychology of Lottery

A competition based on chance in which tickets bearing numbers are drawn at random and winners receive prizes, often cash. Lotteries are also used to raise money for charitable causes and public works, and for political offices.

Early lottery games were deployed mainly as party games (the Roman Emperor Nero was a fan) or as a means of divining God’s will (lotteries were popular at the Saturnalia). But in the 17th and 18th centuries, they spread throughout Europe and into America, even though Protestant church leaders decried gambling as sinful. This expansion of the lottery was partially due to exigency; the American colonies were short on tax revenue and needed funds for everything from roads to colleges. Lotteries were an appealing alternative to imposing taxes, which were widely perceived as a hidden tax.

Modern lottery games have two fundamental elements: a method of recording the identity of bettors and the amount staked on each ticket; and a drawing to select the winning tickets. To record the identities of bettors, lottery officials usually require each bettor to sign or mark his ticket, a practice called “signing on.” This ensures that only bettors who actually purchased the prized numbers are awarded their prizes. To determine the winners, lottery officials use a variety of methods, including random selection or a computer program that assigns tickets to each player.

The odds of winning a prize in a lottery are often very low, and people who play the game frequently lose. Nevertheless, the popularity of lottery games has been fueled by a powerful psychological force: loss aversion.

Whenever someone believes they are about to experience a negative event, such as losing their money in a casino or having a car accident, it can have profound effects on their behavior. The loss aversion principle, which states that people’s actions are dictated by the size of their expected losses, has been applied to a wide range of behaviors, from buying a lottery ticket to the process by which judges are assigned to cases.

To make the most of this effect, lottery commissions design games with high prizes and low odds to entice players to continue playing, even as they lose more and more money. They rely on an understanding of the psychology of addiction that is no different from that used by tobacco or video-game manufacturers. The result is a system that can feel addictive to some, although lottery advocates argue that players understand how unlikely it is that they will win. They also point out that wealthy people spend, on average, a fraction of one per cent of their income on tickets; poorer people spend thirteen per cent.