Why the Lottery Jackpots Are So Huge


A lottery is a game where participants pay money to win prizes that are randomly drawn by machines. The prize can be anything from a unit in a subsidized housing complex to kindergarten placement at a prestigious public school. Many state governments have legalized and regulate lotteries, with the proceeds sometimes going toward a variety of social welfare programs. But critics charge that lottery advertisements are often deceptive, with bettors being misled about their odds of winning the jackpot and falsely inflating the value of a prize won (lotto winners typically receive their winnings in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the current value).

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history in human society, with numerous instances recorded in the Bible. But the first documented use of a lottery for material gain was during the reign of Augustus Caesar, when tickets were sold to raise funds for repairs in Rome. Lotteries became popular in Europe during the 17th century, raising funds for a wide range of municipal uses from paving streets to constructing wharves and building churches. Lotteries were also a significant source of funding in the early American colonies, helping to build Harvard and Yale, and financing a variety of public works projects.

People are inherently attracted to the idea that they might become rich overnight, especially when the odds of doing so are so fantastically skewed. That’s why so many people play the lottery, and it’s why billboards on the highway dangle mega-sized jackpots in front of motorists.

But even if you believe the odds are in your favor, there’s still a strong chance that you won’t win, and that’s because of the way lottery games are structured. They are designed to encourage you to play more and more, and they do so by making the jackpots seem bigger and bigger every time.

To understand why the jackpots are so huge, you need to know a little bit about probability theory. The key concept is that the more numbers you pick, the lower your chances of winning. When you select a set of numbers, try to avoid using ones that are important to you. For example, you should avoid picking your birthdays or ages because more than one person could choose those same numbers, and if someone else has the same numbers, then you’ll have to split the prize. Instead, Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman recommends playing Quick Picks or choosing random numbers.

The other reason the jackpots are so big is that they’re fueled by advertising, and the best way to increase sales is to raise the top prize to apparently newsworthy amounts. The resulting free publicity on news websites and television is enough to boost interest in the next drawing, which makes it more likely that the jackpot will grow to an apparently newsworthy amount again. The cycle continues, and soon the top prize isn’t worth the hassle of actually distributing it.