When Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers responded in a way they rarely had to a work of fiction the magazine had previously printed. They were angry, disgusted, occasionally curious, and uniformly bewildered. The story has continued to grip readers in the decades since and the reason is easy enough to see: Lottery is one of the most chilling and persuasive works of literary fiction ever written.
A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes, often money, are allocated by a process that depends entirely on chance. In a simple lottery the prize is awarded to a single person; in a complex lottery it is awarded to groups of people. As long as the odds of winning are equal to the cost of participating, a significant proportion of those who wish to participate in the lottery will do so. The resulting disutility of monetary loss is likely to be outweighed by the combined utility of the entertainment value of the winning ticket and the satisfaction that comes from knowing that you have participated in an arrangement that relies completely on luck.
In the story, a small village conducts its annual lottery. The villagers are devoted to the tradition of the lottery, even though it has no apparent utility for them beyond the hope that their corn will be heavy this year. They are also loyal to the shabby black box that holds the lottery’s results, and they will not let anyone alter its appearance or use. The illogic of this attachment is underscored by the fact that other relics and traditions have been forgotten or abandoned, and it is clear that the black box has no special significance beyond its function as a container for lottery results.
The villagers are motivated by a desire for wealth, and the lottery provides an opportunity to gain it. Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe that the vast majority of lottery players are not rationally choosing to play. In addition to the aforementioned utilitarian argument, many people play the lottery for social status and because they think it is their civic duty to support state government. In addition, the super-sized jackpots of recent years have given lottery games enormous visibility in a media landscape that is obsessed with big-ticket items such as sports championships and property.
Moreover, the way that lotteries are marketed gives them an additional appeal to certain segments of the population. For example, lottery ads frequently tout the amount of money that is raised for states by playing. The problem with this message is that it obscures the regressivity of lottery play and the fact that most of the money is coming from lower-income and less educated Americans. Those same demographics are disproportionately represented in the populations of the countries that have state-run lotteries. This makes it difficult for politicians to argue that the lottery is good for society in an era of anti-tax fervor.