The People Who Play the Lottery


Americans spent $100 billion on lottery tickets last year, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. But the odds of winning are so dismal that people who play the lottery often go bankrupt within a few years. In fact, it would take the average American 14,810 years to win a billion dollars.

The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate” or “fateful event.” Its origin is unknown, but it may have been derived from Old English lothterie, from the root lothi, meaning to befall or occur upon (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition). It may also have been related to Middle Dutch loterie, a similar term that means “a draw of lots” or “a random selection.”

State governments, which run the lotteries, argue that they are a painless source of tax revenue—that playing the lottery gives residents a chance to voluntarily spend their money, rather than having it taken away from them by taxes. This argument has proven effective, particularly in times of economic stress when voters are concerned about cuts to public services or increased taxes. However, studies have shown that the popularity of lotteries is not related to a state’s actual fiscal condition and that public support for them does not wane even in good times.

People who play the lottery, especially those who play regularly and for long periods of time, are a fascinating group to study. Many of them eschew conventional wisdom and break the rules in pursuit of their dreams. This article takes a look at how and why they do so, and what their experiences can teach us about human behavior.