What’s in a Lottery?

Info Oct 2, 2023

Lotteries are government-sponsored games of chance with prize money. Historically, they have played a key role in financing colonial-era projects, including building roads and wharves and funding Harvard and Yale. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British in 1776, and George Washington attempted to hold one to alleviate his crushing debts (which failed). In an anti-tax era, many state governments have become dependent on “painless” lottery revenues, and pressures are strong to increase them.

But there is more to a lottery than winning a jackpot: The odds of winning are long, and the initial prize amount is often so fantastic that people feel like they should win just by virtue of being lucky enough to play. This combination of inextricable human impulses and a meritocratic belief in our own fair share of instant riches has huge consequences for individuals, families, and communities.

Most states offer state-specific games, ranging from scratch-off tickets to daily drawing games that involve picking numbers. But all of these games are based on random chance, so the results of any individual game have no relation to any other. So while it’s true that certain numbers, such as 7 and 13, seem to pop up more frequently than others, that has nothing to do with any systematic bias in the random number generator. The real reason some numbers seem to appear more often than others is that there are more of them, so they have a lower probability of being drawn.