The Lottery and Addiction


In the earliest times, people gambled by drawing lots. They did so not just because of their innate curiosity, but because it was a cheap way to raise money for important endeavors. Lotteries were common in the Roman Empire—Nero was a fan—and are documented throughout the Bible, including casting lots for everything from kingship to who would keep Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion.

During the early American colonization, states used lotteries to fund many projects, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. These early lotteries helped finance the Revolutionary War, and Alexander Hamilton grasped what would become a key insight: “Every man will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the hope of considerable gain,” he wrote in 1785.

But as America’s prosperity faded in the nineteen-sixties, balancing state budgets became more difficult, and raising taxes or cutting services would have been politically unpalatable. That’s when a new argument for the lottery took shape, one that Cohen takes up in his book.

Lottery advocates argued that, because people were going to play anyway, the government might as well take a cut of the profits. This argument did not eliminate long-standing ethical objections to the lottery, but it gave moral cover to people who approved of the games for other reasons. It also allowed them to argue that, since state-run lottery money would primarily come from black numbers players—who, they claimed, were more likely to spend the cash on important public services than white ones—the new strategy would actually help poor communities.

The problem with this argument is that it’s completely false, and it obscures just how much money lottery winners do spend on the games. In addition, the argument fails to account for how much the lottery’s promotional strategies—from the words on lottery ads to the shape of lottery tickets—are designed to keep people addicted. It’s no different from the strategies of tobacco companies or video-game makers—except that it’s legal, and backed by math.

As the author of a book on addiction, Cohen has seen a lot of lottery winnings and their aftermaths. He offers two pieces of advice to anyone who hits it big: First, keep your mouth shut, and surround yourself with a crack team of lawyers and financial advisers. Second, realize that wealth changes you in ways you don’t expect. It may make you irritable and impatient, or it might cause you to give away more of your fortune to charity.

It is also crucial for lottery winners to know that they are obligated to do good with their winnings. Not just from a societal perspective—though that is important—but because doing so will provide joyous experiences for those around you, too. It’s not easy to do, but it’s the right thing.