The Odds of Winning the Lottery Are Really Long

The odds of winning the lottery are really long. But so many people play, and so many of them buy multiple tickets, that the improbability of victory does not deter players. And that’s a problem. Lottery commissions have tried to shift the message, to emphasize that it’s fun and, for some, even therapeutic. But that obscures the fact that most people spend a significant portion of their income on tickets.

Historically, lotteries were used to finance public projects and for charitable purposes. They were popular in the Low Countries during the 15th century, and by the early 1700s colonial America had more than 200 lotteries that helped build bridges, canals, roads, schools, libraries, and churches. Some even financed a number of colleges and military expeditions.

In modern times, lotteries are a way to fund public services such as education, infrastructure, and health care. They also help generate revenue for state governments. But while the state may reap a percentage of ticket sales, the majority of the money goes to winners—who are often disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite.

As you can see in the graph below, winning the lottery requires buying a large enough number of tickets to cover all possible combinations. That’s why most people choose the same numbers (like 1, 7, and 31) or select numbers based on birthdays or family members. But the good news is that if you keep playing with consistency, you’ll have a better chance of hitting it big.