Lottery fever: Why do giant jackpots like Mega Millions whip people into a frenzy?

·5 min read
Lottery player and California resident Victoria Vazquez holds $280 worth of Mega Millions lottery tickets for her office pool. (Photo:  Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Lottery player and California resident Victoria Vazquez holds $280 worth of Mega Millions lottery tickets for her office pool. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

With the Mega Millions jackpot now estimated to be up to $1.02 billion, with a cash option of more than $600 million, it's no wonder lottery fever is in the air.

If there's an eventual winner, this would be the third largest jackpot in the game's history, according to Mega Millions, whose jackpots start at $20 million.

For a mere $2, lottery players are given the chance to make a life-changing amount of money in an instant. "Sizable jackpots generate enthusiasm because people imagine what life might look like should they win," Eric Storch, professor and vice chair in the Menninger department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.

There's also what's called availability heuristic at play, in which people "make judgments about the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example, instance or case comes to mind." So, for example, a person can easily imagine themselves winning the lottery after seeing previous winners with giant grins holding their giant check.

But the reality is that the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are 1 in 303 million, according to Mega Millions. So why do these big jackpots turn even skeptics into hopeful believers?

It really comes down to how hard it is for the human brain to grasp the actual low probability of winning. Research shows that "humans are prone to overestimating the likelihood of extreme events," whether that's winning the lottery or being bitten by a shark.

"People have no concept of large numbers," Robert Williams, a psychologist specializing in gambling and addictions and a professor at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, tells Yahoo Life. "When people try to estimate the frequency of something, they access retrievable instances from their memories — this is why people think that deaths from accidents are more common than deaths from strokes. For lotteries, everyone knows someone who knows someone who won a large jackpot. However, they fail to realize that it took billions of number draws for these individuals to win."

To better put a large number, like the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot, into perspective, Williams gives the following example: "If it takes 10 seconds to fill out a Powerball [or] Mega Millions ticket, and you spent 12 hours a day filling out two-dollar tickets, every day of the year, it would take 90 years and nearly $300 million to have a 50 percent chance of winning the jackpot."

Another example: "If you bought one ticket every day of the year, it would take you 400,000 years to have a 50 percent chance of winning," Williams says, adding one more example to put things in perspective: "The Powerball [or] Mega Millions lottery is similar to paying $2 for a chance to guess which blade of grass on a football field is my favorite. You can pay another two dollars for another guess, but each time you guess I am choosing a different favorite blade of grass."

While people often separate the lottery from, say, gambling at a casino, "the lottery is gambling," Stephen Goldbart, clinical psychologist and co-director of the Money, Meaning, & Choices Institute, tells Yahoo Life, "and gambling appeals to our reptilian brain in that it's like a child’s mind — it's filled with the fantasy of something for nothing."

He adds: "People don't look at the odds. Because if you start looking at the odds, then it's your adult mind" that has to kick in.

Instead, Goldbart says that the reptilian brain will look at a big jackpot and think, "'Wow, here's a potential feast. Let's go for it.' It's the same as the impulse purchase. It’s all going to work out. It's 'magical thinking' or child-like thinking."

Storch agrees, saying that for some people who exhibit magical thinking in relation to jackpots, "they may believe that luck is something that can be manipulated through magical thoughts or by engaging in superstitious behaviors. The outcome is so substantial, should it happen, that people are anxious about 'missing out,' thus motivating engaging in superstitious actions/magical thinking."

Not surprisingly, playing the lottery is particularly appealing for people who are struggling financially, says Goldbart. Research shows that those with the lowest socioeconomic status have the highest rate of lottery gambling. "For people on the dark side of the wealth gap that feel like their chances of getting out of where they are" are slim, the fantasy of winning the lottery is "pretty appealing." Goldbart adds: "That fantasy of being able to attain success without having to do much for it, particularly in difficult times, is a powerful fantasy."

It also helps that taking a chance on winning comes at a relatively low cost — just $2 — making the investment seem worth it, particularly when the jackpot is very high. "People see greater 'value' in their $2 purchase when the prize is $810 million rather than $100 million," says Williams.

But experts agree that, ultimately (and unfortunately), "the odds of winning remain very low," says Storch. "Although players will accurately point out that the odds are still higher than those who do not participate."

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