The Lottery and Its Dangerous Side Effects


Lottery, or the drawing of numbers for a prize, is a surprisingly old and popular form of gambling. But, like all forms of gambling, it can be addictive, causing people to spend a lot of money on tickets that are unlikely ever to win. And if they do win, they may be left worse off than before.

The first records of lottery-like games date back to the 15th century, when towns in the Low Countries used them to raise funds for town fortifications and poor relief. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the practice spread to England, where lottery profits were often used to fund everything from civil defense to building churches. Even in the early colonies, the Continental Congress used a lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War.

By the end of the 18th century, state governments were scrambling for ways to pay for public services without raising taxes. They saw lotteries as “budgetary miracles” that allowed them to raise large sums of money with a minimum of fuss or embarrassment.

In addition to being a painless alternative to taxation, lotteries are also a very effective marketing tool for states. They can keep the pot of cash growing by making it harder to win, and they can draw a huge amount of free publicity when their jackpots reach apparently newsworthy levels.

While Alexander Hamilton warned that people who play the lottery are likely to become addicted, modern lottery commissioners seem less concerned about the pitfalls of addiction and more interested in keeping people coming back for more. They rely on the psychology of addiction, and their tactics are not that different from those of tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers.