Why Are Lotteries So Popular?

While the casting of lots to determine fates and wealth has a long record in human history, state-sponsored lotteries emerged in Europe in the early 15th century. The word lottery comes from Middle Dutch lotteria, which probably was a calque of Middle French loterie (from the noun lot, meaning “fate”).

Lottery proponents say that the game is a great way to fund public services without raising taxes or cutting programs that help poor and working people. Indeed, many states have used lotteries to finance their social safety nets during periods of economic stress. But studies have shown that the public’s approval of a state lottery is not linked to its objective fiscal circumstances, with lotteries enjoying broad support even when government budgets are healthy.

Besides the fact that people simply like to gamble, there’s another factor that helps explain why state lotteries remain popular: the enticing promise of instant riches. Lotteries promote this message through their glitzy advertising and billboards showcasing massive jackpots.

In a time of inequality and limited social mobility, these promises of easy riches appeal to people’s sense of fairness and their desire to improve their lives. And, as the stories of Abraham Shakespeare and Jeffrey Dampier show, these improbable riches can also bring with them immense and dangerous risks.

Despite the dangers, lotteries continue to grow, largely because super-sized jackpots earn them free publicity on news sites and TV. But there’s a deeper reason for their success: the very concept of lottery is coded with an implicit assumption that people who play the games are not only playing for the money but also demonstrating their meritocratic credentials.