Why Play the Lottery?


The lottery is a fixture in American life. People spend billions on tickets, and states use lotteries to raise revenue for things like schools. But how meaningful that revenue is, and whether it’s worth the cost to people losing money, is a matter for debate.

The odds of winning are long, and people know it. Yet, most people play anyway. Why? One reason is that they have this lingering feeling that it’s their last, best or only chance to get ahead. They buy lots of tickets, and they have quote-unquote “systems” about lucky numbers and stores and times of day and what types of tickets to buy.

Some people try to improve their chances by playing only certain combinations, like consecutive or repeating numbers. Others look at the numbers that have won recently and play those. And some try to make sense of the results by looking at a statistical plot. For example, the plot above shows how many times each application (row) has been awarded a particular position in a lottery. The colors represent the number of times each row was awarded that position, and they are arranged by increasing probability of winning (from left to right).

Super-sized jackpots also help drive lottery sales. They generate news coverage and free publicity, which in turn encourages more people to buy a ticket or two. But the truth is that if a jackpot grows too high, it can be harder to win. And that’s the case for jackpots in both the Powerball and Mega Millions games.