Unless you've been living under a rock (or mourning David Bowie by going on a glam pilgrimage), you'll likely know that there was a historic Powerball draw Wednesday night, and that somebody in suburban LA, California is now possibly a mind-boggling $1.5 billion richer. But that's not the only mind-boggling aspect of the entire lottery phenomenon. The psychology and science behind our love for lotteries — an infinitesimally small chance at unimaginable riches — are also fascinating, and more complex than they appear.
The first lotteries appear to have turned up in ancient China's Han Dynasty, around 205 BC, and the Romans loved them throughout the good times of the Empire, but the modern lottery functions on a scale that couldn't be imagined at any time in history. Clearly, though, something about the whole concept has been deeply addictive across many civilizations and societies, and points to fundamental truths about human psychology, including how we think about luck, destiny, and poverty.
So if you're the winner of the $1.5 billion, congratulations (and I hope you haven't had a heart attack); but if not, as is much more likely, take some comfort from the science behind the popularity of lotteries over thousands of years.
1. Lotteries Are Based On Rescue Fantasies
Part of the psychological reason for the power of lotteries, it turns out, is our addiction to fairytales. In other words, we're strongly attracted to the possibility that we can suddenly, through a stroke of luck, come into a "fairy godmother" or good fortune that can solve all our problems at a stroke. It's what children indulge in when they fantasize that they're actually adopted and are really the secret children of royalty, and it's a seriously common fantasy.
Psychologists believe that this "rescue fantasy" is a very strong part of the lure of lotteries. We can take a shortcut to prosperity and bypass hard work and grinding to get there. Lotteries promise the lightning-strike effect of a complete solution to everything that ails us (though, of course, many lottery winners actually find this is not the case).
2. You're More Likely To Buy Tickets If You're Feeling Poor
WIRED did an investigation into the psychology of lotteries back in 2011, when the concept of a $1.5 billion jackpot was still far in the future, and pointed out a 2008 Carnegie Mellon study about who plays the lottery. It turns out that the prosperous aren't actually the real players: it's those who are struggling or on the poverty line.
This actually doesn't make much economic sense, on the face of it. Tickets are expensive and have been rising in price consistently; those with more money have much more capability to keep buying them, particularly considering how low the odds are and how rare the likelihood of a return. But the study pointed out that feeling poor causes a much stronger reaction to the "rescue fantasy". Poverty provided a bigger incentive, so lower income people made the sacrifice to gain the possibility of "escaping". That fact is well-known to lottery marketers, who make appealing to poor households a key part of their marketing strategy.
Interestingly, the study also found that people are more likely to buy many lottery tickets if they have to make many decisions about it (like passing the lottery booth several times) than if they just have to make one decision (getting them all in one go). So if you seem to keep bringing home too many tickets, make yourself buy them all at once.
3. We're Likely To Believe We've Had A "Near Miss"
If you frequently play the lottery, you'll know the agony that comes with juuuust the wrong numbers: one that's two digits off, for instance, or a set that are identical with the winners except for one difference. According to a Canadian professor interviewed by Business Insider about psychology and lotteries, this sort of thing actually increases your psychological motivation to purchase tickets in the future, even though the likelihood of almost getting the right numbers is far higher than getting all of them at once. It's a false reassurance, in other words, but it still works on us.
The professor, Robert Williams, pointed out that the likelihood of getting all the right numbers in Powerball is about one in 292 million, but getting three out of six numbers right is much more likely: about one in 600. But we read the probabilities wrong, figure we had a "near miss," and keep going.
4. Big Lotteries Induce Serious FOMO
Psychology Today highlights another thing about huge lotteries like the current Powerball jackpot, which completely take over the nation's media: they induce FOMO, or fear of missing out. Lotteries are nationwide things and peer pressure can provide a very effective motivator for getting involved.
It's also part of a primal urge to be "part of things": if everybody around us seems to be buying a ticket, it's far more likely that we'll also consider doing it, particularly if the costs themselves are small. Yes, lottery tickets use the same sort of psychology that drove you to get a nose piercing at 17.
5. The Odds Are So Big We Can't Actually Compute Them
Economics professors will tell you every time that the probability of winning the lottery is absolutely, extraordinarily small. The problem, and one of the main reasons we keep investing in them, isn't that the fantasy is so powerful we can overcome these numbers: it's that we genuinely can't wrap our heads around them.
Professor Robert Williams offered his perspective on this aspect as well, this time to Nautilus in 2013. “People just aren’t able to grasp 1 in 175 million," he told them. “It’s just beyond our experience—we have nothing in our evolutionary history that prepares us or primes us, no intellectual architecture, to try and grasp the remoteness of those odds.”
A lot of psychological research has gone into why we can't seem to make good decisions based on ridiculous odds. One expert, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, thinks it's partially because "we never see interviews with lottery losers," so winning is "far easier to imagine" than it is actually likely to happen. He also pointed out that we're incurably optimistic and emotional as a species; we seem to believe that the best will happen, often if only because we've invested a lot of feeling and desire into it.
Either way, this may not comfort you much if you spent your entire rent on lottery tickets. But at least you can feel confident that many, many people made the same unfortunate decision you did.