What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which people have the chance to win a prize based on the drawing of lots. A lottery can be played for money, goods, services, or even real estate. It is often illegal in some countries, but is permitted in others. In addition to state-run lotteries, there are also private games that accept bets from individuals and companies. The first recorded lotteries date back to the Chinese Han dynasty (205–187 BC) and the Book of Songs (2nd millennium BC).

The lottery has become a popular source of revenue for state governments. During the immediate post-World War II period, states were able to expand their array of social safety net programs without significantly onerous taxes on middle-class and working class families. However, with inflation in the late-twentieth century and rising costs for state government, that arrangement began to crumble. Lotteries provide a way to generate revenue that is relatively easy for states to collect and to distribute.

In a traditional lottery, bettors purchase tickets that contain a selection of numbers, typically between one and 59. These tickets are then grouped into a larger pool and the winner is determined by the number of matching numbers drawn. Some lotteries allow bettors to choose their own numbers, whereas others randomly assign them. The prize amount varies according to how many numbers match, and may include small amounts like PS10 or PS100 or large amounts such as a car or a house.

Lottery games have an undeniable attraction for most people. They provide the opportunity to experience a moment of excitement and indulge in fantasies of becoming rich. In fact, lottery advertisements are designed to appeal to these psychological motivations. They highlight the size of the prizes and feature pictures of celebrities or attractive women to elicit a sense of envy among prospective bettors.

However, the purchase of lottery tickets can’t be accounted for by decision models based on expected value maximization. The reason is that lottery tickets cost more than the expected gain, as shown by lottery mathematics, so a person maximizing expected utility would not buy them. But more general models based on utility functions defined by things other than the lottery results can account for it.

Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, takes place in a remote American village where tradition and customs are strong. In the story, two men—Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves—plan a lottery for the big families in town. The men draw up a list of all the big families in town, and then they plan out a set of lottery tickets. They will have one ticket per family, with the winnings allocated according to a process that relies on chance. The men then start to sell the tickets. The story shows how easy it is for the characters to fall into irrational gambling behavior. The characters’ irrationality is further exacerbated by their loneliness and boredom. As a result, they become vulnerable to mental illness.