If they see a chance, most Americans, Britons, and Canadians take it. Two-thirds of Americans, and roughly three-fourths of Britons and Canadians say in recent Gallup surveys* that they have gambled in the last 12 months, with many likely seeing lotteries as their ticket to fortune and fame.
It's often quipped that the odds of being struck by lightning are better than those of winning the lottery, but the low probability of winning doesn't seem to dull the allure. The lottery is king in Great Britain and Canada, which have both national and regional lotteries: 70% of Canadians and 65% of Britons say they bought a lottery ticket in the last 12 months. In America, where 41 states and the District of Columbia sponsor lotteries, 49% say they purchased a lottery ticket.
Mark Griffiths, a British psychologist and professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, offered his take to the BBC on the paradox of lotteries' appeal: "If you were told that you have a one in fourteen million chance of getting cancer in the next seven days people will say 'oh well it is obviously not going to happen to me it is so infinitesimal' but the fact that there is a one in fourteen million chance of winning the lottery people think 'yes, it's got to be someone why can't it be me.'"
Off to the Races
Horseracing, the "sport of kings," has a long, rich history in Great Britain dating back to the 12th century. The history of dog racing in Britain doesn't go back nearly as far, but it is well established as a favorite sport for the common man. About one in five Britons punted the ponies or "spent a night at the dogs" in the last year, compared with only 4% of Canadians. In the United States, Gallup asked only about betting on horse races, and found a small proportion (4%) doing so.
In Britain, bingo isn't just a game for elderly ladies in church halls; there's a national bingo game. According to the National Bingo Game Association, the National Bingo Game is Britain's second-largest computer-controlled game, after the lottery. So, it's not that surprising that Britons are more likely than Americans or Canadians to try to spell that magic word and win -- 12% of Britons played bingo in the last 12 months, compared with 6% of Canadians and 5% of Americans.
Online gambling is a relatively new phenomenon (and murkily illegal in the United States), and the percentages who have tried their luck online reflect that: 1% of Americans and Canadians gambled on the Internet in the last year, while 2% of Britons did the same. Online gaming industry officials are reporting a massive boom in online gambling, with Great Britain among the top five markets. A British study released last month by Inside Edge showed that in the UK alone, 4 million people gamble online each month -- and the amount wagered online increased 566% between 2003 and 2004.
Twenty-six percent of Canadians and 13% of Britons say they have done some type of gambling other than what was specifically mentioned in the survey. Canadians may be thinking of roulette or poker at casinos, which are ubiquitous throughout Canada, or video lottery terminals, which Canadians have dubbed the "crack cocaine of gambling."
Britons may also be thinking of casinos, as Great Britain reportedly has more casinos than any other country in Europe. And novelty betting is on the rise in Britain's betting houses -- Britons can bet on everything from whether their grandmothers will live to be 100 to who will be the next James Bond.
Not everybody wins of course -- if everybody did, gambling wouldn't be much of a game. The problem is, some people don't know when to stop and end up losing everything. But although so many Americans, Britons, and Canadians say they've gambled, few say that gambling has ever been a source of problems within their families -- just 6% in the United States and 5% in both Canada and Britain.
*Results in the United States are based on telephone interviews 1,011 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 11-14, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup USA.
Results in Canada are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 6-12, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup Canada.
Results in Great Britain are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 1-21, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup UK.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.