The Lottery – The Inside Story


A lottery is a game in which people pay for tickets and then win prizes if they match certain numbers or symbols. Prizes may include cash or other goods, services, or land. Many states, municipalities, and even businesses organize lotteries. Some of these are run by the government, such as the Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij, the oldest running lottery (1726). Others are private games that give away merchandise or property for a small fee. Regardless of the type, lottery draws participants with an inextricable human impulse to take chances and hope for something good.

In the United States, most states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. They raise funds for a variety of purposes, including public projects, education, and social welfare programs. Lotteries have long been a popular source of revenue. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress organized a lottery to raise money for the colonial army. Alexander Hamilton warned that such lotteries are a “hidden tax,” but they were popular, especially after the war, and helped fund Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale as well as other American colleges.

While there are different ways to play the lottery, the basic principle is that each ticket holder has an equal chance of winning the jackpot. To increase the odds of winning, people choose random numbers that are not too close together, and avoid selecting numbers with sentimental value (like birthdays or anniversaries). They can also buy more tickets and pool their money to improve their chances.

If they are lucky enough, some people have the fortune to become millionaires through the lottery. While this may sound like a great way to make money, it comes with an ugly underbelly: that nagging sense that you will never be as rich as those on the other side of the fence. At the very least, this is a form of denial that allows people to continue their daily lives while clinging to the illusion that the lottery is their only hope of breaking out of poverty.

This article was edited on July 22, 2017.

Richard Wiseman explains the science behind the lottery, and how math can help us understand its fairness.

This is an excerpt from the book, “Lottery: The Inside Story.” Copyright 2018 by Richard Wiseman. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

This excerpt was automatically selected from the Collins website. The original excerpt is available at Rich Wiseman.

The word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or fortune. In the 17th century it was common in the Netherlands to arrange lotteries to raise money for a wide range of charitable and public usages. These were widely supported by the upper classes, and a growing middle class was eager to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of gaining a considerable amount.

Modern lottery games are based on the same principles as ancient lotteries, although the modern system has become more complex. For example, the old method of choosing winners by drawing lots has given way to computer technology that combines multiple factors into one formula for picking winners. The result is a probability distribution that is more likely to produce unbiased results than the old method. In addition, the computer algorithm is able to identify patterns in the data that can be used to determine winner.