If you’ve ever played a lottery, or just seen someone buy one on television, chances are you’ve wondered: “Why do they do it?” The answer isn’t exactly straightforward, but there are some things we know about the game that might help explain its popularity.

First, let’s get something straight: It’s not rigged. It’s just a random drawing. You can pick your numbers using software, astrology, asking friends, or whatever other means you might have, but they’ll be picked randomly. There’s no way to predict what numbers will be picked in a random lottery draw. You can also ask yourself, “Why is it so hard to win?” But again, that’s just because the odds are so ridiculously low.

What is Lottery?

The word is from Old English lottir, a compound of two elements. One is the sense of chance (lot), which might be evoked by a fanciful distribution of goods or services, while the other is the idea of a public drawing or competition, which might take place at regular intervals and in accordance with set rules. Lottery has been popular in many cultures, with early examples dating to the 14th century.

In the 17th century, public lotteries became especially popular in colonial America, where they raised money for private as well as public ventures. The Continental Congress established a lottery to raise money for the American Revolution, but it failed; nevertheless, dozens of smaller public lotteries took place over the next 30 years, enabling such projects as roads, libraries, colleges, canals, and bridges to be built. Among the private ventures funded were Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary.

By the mid-18th century, state-sponsored lotteries were widespread in Europe, too. They were promoted by printed advertisements containing combinations of words such as “ticket,” “prize,” and “winner.” (In these ads, winning numbers appeared in the form of a short phrase, often the name of a city or region.)

Some of the money from ticket sales is used to award prizes, but most of it gets divvied up between various administrative and vendor costs, and toward whatever projects each state designates. Some states spend a large percentage of their lottery revenues on education, while others spend less. Lottery is a complicated institution that has its detractors and defenders, but the fact remains that people do like to gamble. That’s the message lottery marketers are trying to convey with those billboards urging us to play for our dreams. But there’s another message being communicated, too: the belief that gambling is inevitable, so states might as well offer it to make some money. That’s a dangerously flawed argument. It ignores the fact that lottery revenue is a regressive tax on the poor. And it obscures the fact that lottery play is a very regressive form of gambling.