Many people play the lottery, even though they know the odds of winning are extremely low. It’s not that they don’t understand math or have some sort of irrational gambling problem; it’s just that they see the lottery as their last, best, or only hope. That’s the message that lottery marketers are relying on to sell tickets: that, even if you lose, you can feel good about yourself because you did something “civic” for your state by buying a ticket.
Lottery players may try to maximize their chances by selecting numbers that are close together or ones that end with the same digit. They might also purchase multiple tickets, figuring that the more they buy, the better their chances are of hitting the jackpot. But if you really want to improve your chances of winning, you should think about playing with a group of people and pooling your money. In fact, that’s exactly how Richard Lustig won the lottery seven times in two years: by combining his money with those of others.
But when even those strategies fail to produce the desired result, many players turn to supposedly mystical advice, such as the one that says you should avoid numbers that are repeated in the same group or cluster. There is a certain amount of truth in this advice, since it’s unlikely that you’ll get consecutive numbers in the same draw. You’re more likely to win if you cover all of the numbers in the available pool, but this strategy does not guarantee that you’ll be the next big winner.
Historically, lottery games have been used to settle disputes, decide who gets the goods in trade, and even to determine a punishment for a crime. They’ve been popular throughout the Roman Empire—Nero was a huge fan—and they are found in the Bible, where the casting of lots was employed for everything from determining who would get Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion to deciding whether or not to burn witches.
In the modern era, states began to run lotteries in the immediate post-World War II period, hoping that they could expand their range of services without especially burdensome taxes on the middle class and working class. But once lottery revenues proved to be far less than a silver bullet, legalization advocates shifted gears and started promoting the lottery as an opportunity to fund a specific line item in a state budget—usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks.
Lottery advocates figured that this approach would make it easy for voters to decide whether or not they should support the game, because it would only require them to vote for a specific service and not against all gambling. And for the most part, it has worked; in most states, a vote for the lottery is a vote for education. The problem is that the specific benefits of the lottery are a mirage, because most of the money that the games raise is used for things other than education.