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6 Reasons We Keep Playing the Lottery

Why a different perspective could make a big difference.

Vuk Vukmirovic/Shutterstock
Source: Vuk Vukmirovic/Shutterstock

Despite overwhelming statistical evidence that your chances of winning the lottery are depressingly small, people keep playing. Following are some behavioral science insights that help explain the psychology of lottery playing:

1. Unrealistic Optimism Concerning Probabilities

Many decision researchers argue that the human mind is simply not hardwired to compute lottery-sized probabilities. Our brains evolved under conditions where we never had to make any probability calculations like those involved with things like Powerball tickets, and so the odds in these games fall outside the range of everyday life experiences.

You can imagine holding a paperclip in your hand. It’s easy to visualize. You can imagine a pile of five or even 10 paperclips. But as we go beyond that number, it becomes increasingly difficult to wrap your head around. What does a pile of 1,000 paperclips look like? 10,000? 100,000? So it's almost impossible to visualize how long our odds are when the probability is one in 200,000. Most people just focus on the one. As Jim Carey said in Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”

2. The Availability Bias

Availability bias shapes our perception of how likely it is we will win. Winning a substantial amount of money seems more likely if we have seen or heard about recent winners. Casinos use this tactic all the time. That’s why they promote big jackpot winners near the front entrance. We never hear about the millions of losers. We only hear about the few big winners. I wonder if the volume of lottery players would decrease if all the losers' names appeared in local papers instead of stories about the winners?

3. Superstitious Thinking and the Gambler’s Fallacy

If you buy four scratch-off tickets and lose all four, this does not mean that you are “due” to win on the fifth. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that lottery tickets are interrelated. Roulette wheels at casinos exploit this by providing a history of the last 20 or so spins. If the roulette wheel landed the past 10 spins on red does that mean that red is "hot"? Or that black is “due”? The truth is neither: Each spin is completely independent of the previous. The wheel has no memory.

4. Illusion of Control and Near Misses

Sometimes when people pick a 3 and the winning number is 5, the psychological experience is of a "near miss": “I was so close this time, maybe I’ll land on it next time.” This gives the lottery player the illusion that they are getting closer. Studies show that people have more confidence in winning when they pick their own numbers compared to when they let the computer generate random numbers. If someone has a January 11 birthday and they pick the number 111 that does not mean, statistically speaking, that they came "oh so close" when 112 hit.

5. Social Traps

Some people have been playing lotto games for decades. They may have a few wins and many losses. “But I can’t give up now," they think. "I’ve been playing for 30 years!” The investment in lottery tickets over the years has piled up—and this helps to justify continued investment to recoup losses. No one intentionally dives into a social trap. People just find themselves trapped after discovering that the costs, which were initially hidden, appear too big to jump ship at a given point. A classic example is being on hold on the phone: Many of us reach a point where we don’t want to hang up and start over because there is no way to recover the time spent already.

Source: Flickr

6. Easy to Justify

The cost to possibly change your life forever by winning the lottery appears minimal. So the behavior is easy to justify: “I’m only spending a couple bucks and, besides, the money goes to education and helping out older folks in the community.” Similar to smoking, the lottery is easier to justify when you only buy one pack at a time or one ticket every day. Few people would sign on to such an investment if they had to pay tens of thousands of dollars up front with the super-slim hope of winning big over the next 30 or 40 years. It looks a lot less tempting, though, when you consider the total sum of money spent.

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