The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game where you pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a big sum of money. It’s easy to see how people get drawn in: the jackpots are massive and, in an age of increasing inequality, many people feel that winning the lottery is their only hope for a better life.

But there’s also something more sinister about lotteries: the way they lure people into playing by dangling the promise of instant riches. Lottery advertising is explicit about this: billboards boast the huge amounts of money on offer, and they’re aimed at people who want to buy that kind of luxury.

What’s more, there are a number of irrational ways in which lottery players rationalise their behavior, from buying tickets only at the cheapest stores to believing they can improve their odds by following certain systems (although Danny Waites, data analyst at Embryo Digital, has proved that these “systems” are just a waste of time). There’s also that dark little underbelly: the sense that, however improbable, someone, somewhere, must eventually win.

Public lotteries were first popular in the 17th century, when they were used to raise money for a range of purposes, from building town fortifications to paying poor widows. They became especially popular in states with large social safety nets and a strong belief that they could expand the scope of public services without heavy taxation on the middle and working classes. But that arrangement started to crumble in the immediate post-World War II period, with states finding it difficult to keep up with growing demand for welfare benefits.