How Lottery Marketers Mislead People About the Odds of Winning the Lottery

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, but using lotteries to distribute material rewards is much more recent. The first recorded public lotteries to sell tickets with prizes in the form of money occurred in the 15th century, when towns used them to raise funds for town repairs and to help the poor.

Early lottery revenues expanded dramatically, but then leveled off and even began to decline. To maintain or increase profits, lottery officials introduced new games to lure new players. These innovations are largely responsible for the current ubiquity of state lotteries.

The main message that lottery marketers convey is that playing the lottery is fun. This is true, but it’s also coded to suggest that you don’t need to play the lottery much to enjoy it. That’s not a good message to send to people who spend a large proportion of their incomes buying tickets.

A more subtle message is that the odds of winning the lottery are fantastic. That, too, is true — but the odds are also fantastic for everyone else who buys a ticket. Lottery participants largely ignore the odds when they choose their numbers, often choosing birthdays or ages that many other people have chosen. They also fail to consider the fact that, if they win, they’ll have to split the prize with anyone who also had the same numbers.

Lottery officials should be clear about the odds and how the game works. But they shouldn’t use those facts to deceive people about how much the prize money is worth.