Lottery Games Need to Be More Accurate and Fair


Lottery isn’t just a game; it’s also an industry that generates billions of dollars each year for state governments. It’s an industry that’s deeply rooted in the human desire to dream big, even if those dreams are often irrational and delusional. It’s an industry that, as a writer for the New York Times argues, can create real-life miracles.

Lotteries, in which people pay to have a chance to win money or other prizes, can be found in all sorts of places, from the lottery for kindergarten admission at a prestigious school to a lottery for occupying units in a subsidized housing project to a lottery for a vaccine against an epidemic disease. There’s even a lottery for the right to select one of 14 NBA teams in the draft, and it has helped make the league more competitive than ever before.

In modern America, as Cohen explains, lotteries emerged when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a fiscal crisis in many states, where social services were being stretched beyond their limits and politicians weren’t interested in raising taxes or cutting services because they knew it would be unpopular. For these politicians, the lottery was a budgetary miracle that allowed them to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars without hiking taxes. Suddenly, it seemed, the moral objections that had long been leveled against gambling and the lottery vanished.

The problem, as Cohen demonstrates, is that people don’t really understand how lottery odds work. People tend to develop an intuitive sense for how likely risks and rewards are based on their own experiences, but those instincts don’t translate well when it comes to large-scale lotteries. They fail to appreciate, for example, that a change from one-in-three million odds to one-in-three hundred million odds doesn’t really mean much to the average person, who can’t afford to buy every ticket in the world.

So if we’re going to have lottery games, they need to be designed for a more accurate and fair understanding of how odds work. And the best way to do that is by focusing on educational efforts that emphasize probability and the mathematics of luck.

It’s also important to remember that, despite the fact that it’s illegal in most states to promote lotteries in the US through the mail and to transport lottery tickets across state lines, a lot of the advertising for and marketing of lottery games takes place over the Internet. In order to combat this smuggling, states need to be more diligent in their enforcement of federal laws and regulations regarding interstate and international commerce. Until they are, the lottery is an industry that will continue to attract millions of people who don’t quite understand how it works and think that luck is all it takes to change their lives for the better. That’s a good thing—in some ways. But in others, it’s a bad thing. And it’s time we realized that.