here are two lottery tickets sitting on my desk right now. My boyfriend and I buy them occasionally on the way back from road trips. One reads, “100X THE CASH,” a multicolored green sheet printed with floating dollar signs in the background, the other, “50X THE BUCKS,” its name in bold, slanted writing that reminds me of a speeding car. We won about 50 bucks between both.
We’re both struggling against mountains of student loan debt, but we’re still tempted, now and again, to waste a few much-needed dollars on our favorite lottery.
I’ve long understood the powerful allure of the scratch-off. When I was a kid, my mother would buy a few whenever we went to the grocery store, even though we were so poor she often raided our church’s donation bin for canned food. At our market, sheets of tickets were dispensed from a vending machine — six rows of square plastic windows, each displaying the front of a different ticket. I was enchanted by the sparkly, cartoonish bubble letters — glittering “STRIKE IT RICH,” metallic “GOLD RUSH,” neon pink “LUCKY 7’s.” They looked like the kind of edible paper candy you might find at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
We played them in the car when we finished shopping — my mom seeking reprieve from our money trouble and the chaos of her work day, and I, seeking quality time. We never won anything, but those two minutes were thrilling. Our desperate financial insecurity became a game, something the two of us could laugh at and bond over.
Larry, a long time family friend, recalls similar memories with his mother. “We used to get scratch-offs in our stockings when we were young,” he tells me. ”[My mom] would hide them in the Christmas tree — she got a kick out of it.” The family continued to bond over the lottery as he got older. “A lot of the time it was just me, and mom, and my sisters — we would pool all our money together so we could buy and play scratch-offs together.”
For Larry and I, scratch-offs represent a connection to our mothers, but the reasons for playing are varied for everyone, and are almost always intensely personal. My friend Alice, who is agoraphobic, tells me she’d buy them as a reward for leaving the house. She keeps the debris from the tickets in a jar labeled “winning dust.”
Of course, the lottery industry’s success depends on our desire to feel like winners. And while scratch-offs might seem democratic because they’re based on chance, the poorest among us are, in fact, the lottery’s primary targets — and the most in need of the money it offers.
Scratch-offs may be nefarious in that sense, but I find the nostalgia difficult to resist. I am inevitably drawn to them as a means of connecting with my past. Like so many things in life, they’re as bad for you as they are fun. They bring levity to the stress of day-to-day life by feeding the blind hope that chance is all that stands in the way of changing our circumstances. Many factors beyond our control (race, education, geography, ability) can contribute to our stations in life, but scratch-offs allow us to escape our worries — for at least as long as it takes to reveal a ticket’s hidden numbers with a quarter or a car key. They’re a Hail Mary bid for the universe to be on our side. There’s an almost aggressive positivity at work in scratch-off players, an enforced naivete about lottery statistics (you’re more likely get hit by an asteroid than win a $1 million prize). And whether you find that endearing or loveable or even tragic, it’s always deeply human. Playing the lottery doesn’t make sense. And, according to psychologist Mark Dombeck, it doesn’t have to.
“The purchase of scratchers is an emotionally motivated decision rather than a rational one,” he explains. “The emotion system (the limbic brain) does not understand language or math or time very well, if at all. You imagine that you could win. The image of that win in your mind fools the emotion system into getting excited, because it can’t tell the difference between a real reward and an imagined reward.That’s enough for the emotion system to motivate action.”
So maybe the brain does trick people into risking money on the lotto. And maybe the lottery industry does swindle people like me, and Larry, and my mom. (Once my boyfriend and I play our tickets, the magic often fades away — we rarely even cash in our winning tickets.) But for us, playing scratch-offs is more than a game; it makes being poor an easier burden to bear. We know the system is rigged against us. The lottery won’t change that. But it’s fun to imagine that we could cheat it with a sudden, momentous win.
Ultimately, it’s harnessing that fantasy that makes scratch-offs so satisfying. And in the end, losing actually reinforces my understanding of the world: I am in control of the path my life takes, not some flimsy sheet of paper.
Illustrations by Liana Jegers.