The Odds of Winning the Lottery Are Getting Worse


The lottery has become a ubiquitous fixture in state governments, raising billions of dollars annually for everything from education to road repairs. But while lottery proceeds have proved to be a popular source of revenue, the odds of winning remain astronomically slim. The fact that many people continue to purchase tickets is testament to the human desire to dream big, despite the fact that there is a much higher likelihood of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire than there is of hitting the jackpot in the Mega Millions lottery.

The success of lotteries is not surprising, as humans have an intuitive sense for how likely risks and rewards are within their own experience. However, when it comes to the scale of the lottery, this innate ability to understand probability is thrown off by its immense scope. “If human beings were really good at math, no one would be buying lottery tickets,” says Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross.

Generally speaking, state lotteries follow similar structures: they are established by a state and operate as a monopoly for the government (rather than licensing private companies in return for a cut of the profits); begin operations with a small number of modest games; and then, due to the constant pressure for increased revenues, progressively expand the portfolio of games available. Historically, lottery revenues have expanded dramatically soon after the lottery’s introduction and then level off and occasionally decline. This “boredom factor” has led to the constant introduction of new games to maintain or increase revenue levels.

Most people who play the lottery have some sort of system they employ when selecting their numbers. Whether it’s using their lucky numbers or picking the dates of significant life events like birthdays and anniversaries, most players believe they have a better chance of winning if they stick to their system. But as Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman explains, this is a fallacy that’s easy to fall into.

Although the chances of winning a prize are slim, lottery participants still spend money on their tickets because they feel that the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits they receive outweigh the disutility of losing the money. But the truth is that the odds of winning a major jackpot have not improved in recent years and are actually getting worse.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the odds of winning a lottery jackpot are getting worse not because more people are playing but because the prizes have grown to such eye-popping amounts that the media is constantly running stories about them. This publicity entices more people to buy tickets and the jackpots grow even bigger, creating an endless cycle of skyrocketing prize amounts and eroding the odds of winning. In the end, the only thing that keeps people buying tickets is the hope that they’ll be the one person to hit it big. Then they can use the money for anything from paying off debts to buying a new car or a dream vacation.