What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a random selection process used when something in high demand is limited, like units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements. A person pays a small fee, usually $1, to enter and wins if their numbers match those randomly selected by machines. Lotteries are often considered gambling, but they can also be run to give people a fair chance of winning a prize for services or goods. For example, military conscription and commercial promotions that award prizes based on a random drawing are both types of lottery.

In the nineteen-sixties, when states found themselves in a financial crisis, with soaring population growth and inflation undermining their social safety net, they started to turn to lotteries to fill the gap. These were not the genteel, morally correct lotteries of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (whose sense that people would rather have a modest chance at a large amount than a huge one at a tiny amount was borne out) but slickly produced rigged games that offered one-in-three-million odds for a jackpot of millions of dollars.

But while the odds were bad, the appeal was clear to many people who spent billions of dollars on tickets each year. Lottery commissions understood the psychology of addiction, and crafted everything about the games—from the slick advertising campaigns to the math on the fronts of the tickets to the way they were sold—to keep people coming back for more. This is not a strategy that is unique to lotteries: it’s one that tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers have perfected.