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The Myth of Winning the Lottery

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Lotteries aren’t just about winning the jackpot. They’re about buying into a belief that you can improve your chances of winning through smart habits and wise decisions. In fact, that’s how most people think about their lottery purchases. They believe that the disutility of a monetary loss can be outweighed by the utility of a non-monetary gain, or by the entertainment value of playing. In this sense, a lottery ticket is no different than a movie ticket or a concert ticket.

If you’re lucky enough to win, you can turn your winnings into cash or goods and services. But the fact is, most people don’t win. And the odds are even worse for those who play frequently. But this doesn’t stop people from purchasing lottery tickets. And it doesn’t keep them from believing that they’ll eventually be the one who wins.

This irrational belief stems partly from the fact that lottery games are addictive. Many players develop systems that aren’t based on statistical reasoning. They choose specific numbers, buy tickets only at certain stores or times of day, and follow other rituals that can keep them hooked. This is not unlike the way some people become addicted to cigarettes or video games. And state lottery commissions aren’t above leveraging these psychological triggers to keep people playing.

But the main reason why people keep playing is that they’re convinced that there’s an underlying meritocratic justice in the world that makes it fair for them to have a shot at winning. This is the same reason why lottery companies put so much effort into their advertising campaigns and the way they design their tickets. They know that their products are a form of addiction, and they use the psychology of addiction to keep people coming back for more.

In the 17th century, it was common in the Low Countries for towns to hold lotteries to raise money for poor people and town fortifications. The earliest recorded lotteries used keno slips that were similar to today’s lottery tickets.

The modern incarnation of the lottery, which Cohen explores in this book, started in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness about all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. With inflation on the rise, states faced a challenge: to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which would have been unpopular with voters.

In the village of the story, everyone knows that a murder will happen someday. But they’re blind to the fact that it’s already happened countless times before. They’re just too accustomed to the ritual of picking someone at random, and they’re unable or unwilling to question why it keeps happening. It’s the same sort of blind acceptance that allows a ritual murder to become part of the fabric of life in small towns and villages, where a woman can be killed for no other reason than her having drawn the wrong slip of paper.

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