Lotteries have a long record in human history. The Old Testament instructs Moses to divide land by lot, and Roman emperors used the lottery as a way to give away property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries became a popular dinner entertainment in England and the United States, and were instrumental in building many American colleges.
When people buy tickets, they usually do so with the belief that winning a lottery prize will change their lives for the better. Lottery advertisements play on this, typically implying that the jackpot prize will pay for a dream house, a new car, or a vacation. Lottery advertising also commonly misleads people about how unlikely it is to win.
Most people who play the lottery buy tickets on a regular basis, often spending $50 or $100 a week. They know that the odds are long, but they continue to gamble anyway. Some are convinced that they have a “lucky” number, or that certain stores or times of day are luckier than others. Other players develop what Clotfelter and Cook call a “quote-unquote system,” an irrational betting pattern that they believe will lead to the occasional big prize.
A key argument for state lotteries is that they are a painless form of taxation, allowing citizens to voluntarily spend their money for the public good. This argument is especially powerful in times of economic stress, when state governments are seeking to raise taxes or cut services. But research shows that the actual fiscal condition of a state does not have much impact on whether or when it adopts a lottery.