The Low Odds of Winning the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which players win prizes based on the drawing of lots. Prizes may be cash or goods. A number of people play the lottery, contributing billions of dollars each year. The odds of winning a jackpot are usually quite low. Many states, including the United States, have a state lottery. There are also private lotteries, run by independent companies. These are often associated with sports teams or other organizations. The game itself dates back thousands of years, but the modern version of the lottery began in America in the 1960s. Its popularity has continued to grow.

The word lottery comes from the Middle Dutch noun lot meaning “fate” or “destiny.” It is believed to have been borrowed by English speakers from Middle French. The first public lotteries, in which tickets were sold for the chance to win money, were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. These raised funds for town fortifications, the poor, and a variety of other uses.

In the immediate post-World War II period, when state governments were expanding their array of services, politicians were able to make lotteries work by selling them as a painless source of revenue. Voters, the argument went, would be willing to spend a little of their own income for the chance to win a big prize—a sort of hidden tax on the general population that was not nearly as onerous as higher sales or income taxes.

But a big problem quickly emerged. As Cohen notes, while voters were happy to spend their own money on the lottery, they were not so keen to see it used as a way for states to spend even more of their own money. When that became clear, legalization advocates started to tinker with their message. They stopped arguing that a lottery could float most of a state’s budget, and instead claimed it would pay for a particular line item, invariably some popular service like education or elder care or aid for veterans. This made it easier for pro-lottery activists to argue that a vote in favor of the lottery was not a vote for gambling but a vote in support of a worthy cause.

But the real reason that the odds of winning are so low is that it is very difficult to sustain a large wager for an extended period of time. This is not because of the nature of the numbers, which are random, but rather because of human psychology. The fact is that people are much more likely to remain committed to a long-term commitment if the stakes are very high. This is why cigarette companies and video-game makers employ so many strategies designed to keep players hooked. It is not surprising, then, that state lottery commissions are not above availing themselves of the same psychological tricks. Whether in the form of sexy television ads or the look of the tickets themselves, lotteries are designed to keep people playing.