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The Science Behind Why We Still Play The Lottery

The science behind playing the lottery.

Terrible news! Just like thousands of other people, I also tried playing the lottery. Turns out that I didn’t win the Powerball drawing this week.

We all know the odds of winning the lottery are extremely low, so low that you’ve probably never heard a statistic so small in your life. Powerball reports its current odds: one in 175 million.

That means that you’re more likely to win a gold medal in the Olympics, more likely to win an Academy Award, and more likely to be hit by an asteroid than you are to win a Powerball lottery.

People who play the lottery know the odds are pretty low. They may not realize how low, but we know it’s not likely. And yet, hundreds of thousands of people still play – which is exceptionally fascinating and bizarre at the same time.

Why does science say about so many people playing the lottery when they know they’ll never win?

A game in which you have to completely ignore logic, reason, and rationale to play in the first place? People who don’t play the lottery often wonder that there has to be something going on here, right? Of course, there always is.

Let’s take a look at some of the leading scientific lottery studies:

The science behind why so many people play the lottery, even though only a small fraction of people ever win (like those pictured here).

Robert Williams, a sociologist who studies lotteries at the University of Lethbridge, says one reason we play anyway is the sheer size of the fact that these odds cause the brain to attempt to imagine.

One in 175 million. Our brain can’t understand how small that number is. It’s totally abstract,” said Williams.

But you know what isn’t abstract? Hopes and dreams, buying a lovely home, lounging on a tropical beach forever, not having to worry about making next month’s rent, paying off that enormous health care bill, a convenience from loans or credit card debt, a convenient escape from poverty.

It all feels very real. In fact, much more real than some incomprehensible statistic.

These fantasies activate areas of the brain linked to motivation and decision making. Weighed against your hope, a dollar or two doesn’t seem like much. And shoot, a glitter of hope sure is fun.

A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research also found that fantasies about specific material items (like a car or a yacht) actually breaks down our self-control. In the study, those who bought a lottery ticket with a particular item in mind expressed a greater affinity for small, quick rewards rather than bigger-but-delayed rewards.

This break in self-control leads someone who might buy one lottery ticket to buy more of them.

Another study at Carnegie Mellon found that feeling uncertain, for instance, about whether or not you could be the lucky one, cues the brain to seek resolution. That little voice asking what could be – what might have been – sometimes results in what scientists call “magical thinking, superstitions, [and] the belief that I personally am above the odds.”

Magical thinking means the brain finds an answer that isn’t grounded in reality, but it feels good anyway.

When you think about it, it applies to a lot of things, not just the lottery. Pair these factors up with all that sneaky, but aggressive, marketing imagery prompting more fantasies, instilling false hope, egging you on, and, well, you end up with $65 billion spent on lottery tickets every year.

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