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Why we can’t resist the promise of that lottery ticket

Published: October 29, 2018

“What we’re really buying is the fantasy that we might win, as opposed to really believing we will.”

With more than $1.6B (yes, billion) in the Mega Millions jackpot and over $620M in the Powerball jackpot, lottery fever is at an all-time high. Yet, your chances of winning were only a truly miraculous 1-in-302.6 million for the Mega Millions, and your chance of winning Powerball is something around 1-in-292 million. And the chance of winning both lotteries? Something like, 1-in-88 quadrillion, according to CNBC.

Even with the chances of winning so minute, so many of us can’t resist tossing away more even money in hopes of landing the big payoff. So why do we keep trying?

For one, on some level, we all believe that money buys happiness. A recent Swedish study found — surprise, surprise — that winning the lottery (as opposed to losing) really does lead to greater life satisfaction (although it doesn’t seem to change the winners’ day-to-day happiness). It’s no wonder people who can least afford to play are also the most likely to spend money to get in the game. A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making found when people are made to feel subjectively poor, they end up buying more lottery tickets. And a 1999 Duke University research paper found that people in Virginia who made between $25k-$50k a year spent more than $91M on Lotto tickets, where people who made more than $50k spent close to $70M and people who made $15k-$25k spent $35M.

Timothy M.D. Fong, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program says this discrepancy might come down to availability. For example, he says lottery tickets are sold in liquor stores which are more often found in lower-income neighborhoods. Fong cautions against a commonly repeated phrase — that the “lottery is a tax on the math impaired.” He chalks it up to classism. “There’s no truth to this whatsoever,” Fong says.

According to a 2016 Gallup poll, roughly half of Americans reported buying a lottery ticket within the last year.


Since the 1960s, states have legalized lotteries to raise money. David G. Schwartz, Ph.D., director of the Center for Gaming Research and Instructor at the Department of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says, at first, lotteries weren’t advertised and drawings were rarely held. But come the 1970s, New Jersey switched over to daily, easy-to-access drawings and when revenues grew quickly, other states quickly adopted the same model, says Schwartz.

“At first, a million-dollar jackpot was considered big news, but as time went on, players became less excited by the possibility of winning ‘only’ a few million dollars,” he explains. Today’s gigantic jackpots stem from the late 1980s with the establishment of multi-state lotteries, which can offer jackpots surpassing $1B. The more states that join a particular lottery, the more people play and the bigger the potential jackpot — hence the currently mega Mega Millions and powerful Powerball.


Fong says what we’re really buying is the fantasy that we might win, as opposed to really believing we will. “Americans love frenzy,” he says. “We love spectacular scenes and big events. When you think about it, lining up to buy lottery tickets is completely unnecessary, but people do it because they want to be a part of the spectacle. It’s a cultural thing.”


“Most people don’t think you can be addicted to the lottery, but it can be a form of gambling addiction,” Fong explains. “The lottery is gambling by strict definition of gambling, and one of the major forms of legalized gambling in America. It’s highly regulated and tightly controlled, but at the end of the day, a gambling disorder is putting something of value at risk. If you’re doing that, there’s no difference between playing the lottery and blackjack.”

For people with a gambling disorder, Fong notes large jackpots can be triggering because tickets are so readily available every day of the week, and they’re relatively inexpensive. “The hallmark of all addiction is continuing with a behavior despite harmful consequences. And just like any other addiction, lottery addicts lose time, money, productivity and they continue to do it despite financial damage or an inability to get their job done,” says Fong.

Like with any other disorder, those who wonder if they are addicted to gambling should seek treatment. “These are mental health conditions that co-exist with depression and anxiety,” says Fong. “If you’re worried about it or wondering if you have a problem, you should get connected with health services. There’s usually a phone number to call for help right on the back of a lottery ticket.”

As for the rest of us, our two dollars will likely only buy us the fantasy of winning — which is a compelling fantasy for absolutely anyone.


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