In the United States, most state governments run lotteries. Unlike casinos or slot machines, these games offer players the opportunity to win real cash prizes. To do so, players select numbers from a range of possible options. These numbers are then drawn in a random manner, and the winner is announced. This process is completely transparent and offers a fair chance to all participants.
Although the lottery has a long history, it’s only in the past half-century that its popularity has increased dramatically. As Cohen explains, this shift coincided with the waning of the American middle class—and thus a declining sense of financial security among its members. In the nineteen-seventies and ’eighties, income inequality grew, job security deteriorated, health care costs rose, and the old promise that hard work would pay off in the form of a secure retirement and a solid education ceased to be true for most working Americans.
The lure of the big jackpot has been a major driving force in lottery sales. The larger the prize, the more likely the winnings will be carried over into the next drawing, which boosts ticket sales and free publicity. And it’s not just the prize size that matters; lottery ad campaigns feature attractive people, while the math behind the games makes them seem appealing.
The prevailing wisdom is that the bigger the jackpot, the lower the odds of winning—but this is not necessarily true. When the odds of winning are low enough, the entertainment value or other non-monetary benefit of playing may outweigh the disutility of a monetary loss.