What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game of chance in which participants purchase tickets to win a prize ranging from cash to goods or services. The winning numbers are selected at random by a computer or by people who work for the lottery organization. The first lotteries were conducted in Europe, where they began with the purpose of raising funds for town fortifications and other public works. Later, they became popular as a way to raise money for wars and other state-wide initiatives. Lottery laws vary by country, but in the United States state governments control the games and use their profits solely for public purposes. As of August 2004, forty-two states and the District of Columbia operated lotteries.

Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery shows how evil can be committed by humans even in small, peaceful looking places. The villagers in this story are characterized as hypocritical, cruel, and cowardly in their behavior toward one another. Jackson also points out that a person who goes against the beliefs of his or her social group is usually treated as an outsider or misfit. This dynamic can occur in many workplaces, schools, and churches where people become accustomed to each other’s behaviors and are not surprised when they have group malfunctions.

In the story, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves decide to set aside a number of tickets for each family in the village. They write down their names and the amount of money that they stake on each ticket. The tickets are then shuffled and placed in a box for the drawing. During the lottery, the villagers greet each other with the traditional greeting, and the narrator remarks that they “handle each other without a flinch of sympathy.”

The purchase of lottery tickets cannot be explained by decision models based on expected value maximization. However, lottery purchases may be justified by risk-seeking behavior and utility functions defined on things other than the lottery results. In addition, the purchase of lottery tickets is often motivated by a desire to experience a thrill and to indulge in a fantasy of wealth.

As a result, lottery games are often advertised with super-sized jackpots that receive significant media coverage and increase ticket sales. In fact, a recent study by the consumer financial company Bankrate found that people earning more than fifty thousand dollars per year spend about one percent of their income on lottery tickets. On the other hand, those who earn less than thirty thousand dollars per year spend thirteen percent of their income on tickets. This discrepancy is likely due to the fact that rich people can afford to spend a higher percentage of their income on lottery tickets because the cost of purchasing a single ticket is much lower for them than it is for poorer people. In the end, this difference in purchasing power helps to explain why the top prizes of American lotteries are so often so large and why they generate such tremendous media attention.