Why people play Powerball despite those abysmal odds

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Winning the Powerball can drastically change a person’s life. All of that money could give a person the opportunity to buy that 1965 Ford Falcon that he’s always had his eye on. A factory worker can dream about buying a large house, getting a couple cats, and wearing a gown covered in Swarovski crystal.

On Jan. 13, the national Powerball lottery racked up a jackpot of over $1.58 billion, the largest Powerball jackpot in history. The day before the Jan. 13 drawing, The New York Times listed the probability of winning the jackpot as one in 292.2 million. In fact, The New York Times reported that a given individual is 246 times more likely to be struck by lightning this year than win the jackpot. So why does the temptation of the prize keep people coming back?

With odds as abysmal as this — and with these odds widely communicated — there has to be a pretty strong draw to participate. Carnegie Mellon’s George Loewenstein, Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology, has engaged in research trying to determine what factors make such terrible odds seem worth the effort and resources. In 2008 Loewenstein, working with graduate students Emily Haisley and Romel Mostafa, developed an experiment that aimed to explain why low-income individuals spend a higher percentage of their money on lottery tickets than those in higher financial classes.

Loewenstein’s experiment exposed participants to two separate conditions: one in which the participant was made to feel less wealthy, and the other in which the participant was made to feel more wealthy. Then the participants purchased lottery tickets. The research team found that those made to feel like they had a lower-income purchased more tickets than their counterparts who were made to feel like they had a higher-income.

Participants who were made to feel like they had a lower income selected their income grade from a large range, with $100,000 or below being the lowest category. Participants who were made to feel like they had a higher income were given smaller ranges that started lower, at $10,000 and below, proceeding incrementally, with the highest choice being $60,000 and above.

Lotteries, Loewenstein said, give individuals a chance to dream big, and individuals don’t just buy into the dollar amount of the prize. They become enthralled by the idea of the lifestyle and experiences that the money would afford them. Lotteries let people fantasize.

But as Loewenstein further reveals, lower-income lottery contestants may purchase more tickets because it is one of the only opportunities where they have the same chances for success as those coming from more privileged backgrounds. A wealthier person may have a better chance at getting a credit card approved, or gaining entry to a selective college, but a gamble, like winning the Powerball, is equivalently unlikely for everyone.

It is easy to brush off the idea of the Powerball lottery as being an outrageous waste of money, but people’s brains are manipulated by context and other ideas, and not just by the tiny chance of winning. People who feel financially stuck, who feel constrained by circumstance, like to dream about what would happen if money were to fall into their hands. Social science helps to elucidate the mystery behind this pursuit, and helps to explain why lotteries endure.

The winners of the Jan. 13 record-breaking Powerball hailed from at least three states. Though their chances were unbelievably small, these winners will continue to navigate the complications and some luxuries that result from abruptly receiving a generous amount of money. Hopefully the extravagant lives they buy will live up to their grand expectations.