The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is a big business that states rely on to raise money. But is it worth the cost? It’s one of the most popular forms of gambling, and it can give people hope in an era when social mobility seems increasingly limited. But there’s an ugly underbelly to this seemingly harmless pastime: It’s helping create a generation of gamblers.

There’s a simple reason that some people like to play the lottery: They just enjoy gambling. It’s an inextricable part of human nature, and a lot of us can’t help ourselves. And that’s fine, as long as state governments are clear about the purpose of their lotteries.

Most lotteries require players to select numbers from a set, and prizes are awarded on the basis of those numbers. Some people try to make their selections as random as possible, while others play a combination of significant dates, such as children’s birthdays or ages. In those cases, they might be splitting a prize with hundreds of other people who also picked those same numbers. Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman recommends choosing random numbers or buying Quick Picks, which have the same odds of winning as selecting your own numbers.

The concept of drawing lots for a decision can be found in many cultures, including the Old Testament’s instructions to Moses for conducting a census and distributing land among Israel’s population, and the Roman practice of giving away property and slaves by lottery during Saturnalian feasts. It’s a process that can be used for all kinds of decisions, from filling a vacant job position to placing students in schools and universities.