What Is the Value of a Lottery?


A lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay for chances to win a prize, often money or goods. Lottery prizes are determined by a random drawing of tickets purchased from a pool. Prizes may also be awarded in exchange for contributions to a cause, such as education, that is promoted through the lottery. Lotteries are often regulated by law or government and the proceeds are a source of public funds. A person who purchases a lottery ticket may be required to pay tax on winnings.

Lottery games have a long history. One of the first recorded lotteries was in the Low Countries in the 15th century, where towns used them to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. In the United States, the Continental Congress used a lottery in 1776 to raise funds for the American Revolution. Public lotteries are still common in some countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, but they are not as widespread as they were in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Private lotteries are often illegal.

Some people argue that there is a value to the lottery because it gives them a chance to become rich, but this argument ignores other forms of income. Lottery players as a group contribute billions in foregone savings that could otherwise be invested in retirement or college tuition.

In addition, the odds of winning are abysmal. In the rare cases where someone does win, the amount of money they receive must be paid in taxes and other expenses, and most of the time that amount is not enough to sustain them. This is why so many lottery winners go bankrupt within a few years of their big win.

Most people who buy lotto tickets are not irrational. They understand that the odds are stacked against them and they know that they will probably lose, but they still play because they get a lot of value from it. For people who don’t have a good job or for whom the prospects of becoming rich are remote, buying a lottery ticket is often an inexpensive way to dream and imagine themselves living a better life.

But what people don’t realize is that even when they do win, their winnings are not as great as they think. They have to divide their prize with all the other people who bought tickets, and if they pick numbers like birthdays or sequences that hundreds of other people play (like 1-1-2-3-4-5-6), they will probably have to split a very small share of the prize. This is why it is important to keep the lottery in perspective, and to focus on other ways to build wealth. This article was written by Mark Glickman and published on November 28, 2018 on the Harvard Business Review website. It is reprinted with permission from the author.