The Growing Popularity of the Lottery

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long record in human history, including several instances recorded in the Bible. The lottery is a more recent invention, however, and began in the United States in 1612 when King James I of England created one to help fund the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. Lotteries became common in colonial America, raising funds for towns, wars, colleges and public-works projects. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery in 1726 to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British, and George Washington held a private lottery in the 18th century to alleviate crushing debts.

The popularity of the lottery has been fueled by the fact that it offers relatively low risks and high rewards. Its success has led to more elaborate games such as scratch-off tickets and video poker, and a broad expansion of marketing efforts. The success of the lottery has also prompted a host of criticisms, including its role as a source of “painless” revenue for states and other groups; alleged problems with compulsive gambling; and resentment at what critics see as an implicit tax on lower-income people.

But the truth is that most people who buy tickets don’t think of them as a financial bet. Instead, they see them as low-risk investments that give them a sliver of hope that they might win big. This irrational mindset has helped fuel a boom in lottery advertising, even though the odds of winning are extremely slim.