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Lottery psychology: Why do people take chances even though winning is so rare?

Arizona Lottery
Posted at 5:00 AM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 12:15:41-04

PHOENIX — Over the weekend, one Mega Millions ticket landed all the winning numbers of the $515 million prize.

On Wednesday, a nearly $236 million drawing is on the line for the Powerball.

ABC15 wanted to help make sense of the odds of winning and why players keep coming back to take chances.

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Why are we so enthralled with the chance to win free money without a lot of work?

"I would say... the over-arching reason that people pay the lottery... is that the lottery is really designed to take advantage of the biases and heuristics that we have in our judgment and our decision-making," University of Arizona Associate Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences Robert Wilson said.

"The first one is the jackpot, right? The most obvious one...the size of the jackpot," Wilson said. "It's enormous... hundreds of millions of dollars."

The second is the actual likelihood that someone could win the lottery.

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"People... we're just not wired to deal with probabilities as small as one in... it's almost 300 million to win the jackpot in Powerball, for example, and what it does is it takes advantage of something called the availability heuristic, which is where we judge the probability that something's going to happen by how easy it is to come up with examples of that happening," Wilson said.

He explains how the media and social excitement surrounding the jackpot winners, without stories of the millions of losers, make our brains believe the odds of winning are better than they really are.


"You couldn't report on 300 million losers for every one winner," Wilson laughed.

Finally, the third way to keep folks paying into the lottery is the little wins.

"Those small, unpredictable rewards," Wilson said. "They're giving you a little bit of dopamine... a little burst of dopamine every time you get one and that's the thing that gets you hooked over and over again."

If a lottery hopeful is still looking for a way to justify playing for the jackpot, the Arizona Lottery does benefit the community. In fact, state law requires that the lottery give back.

Last year, nearly $230 million went to a general fund and these four key areas: higher education, health and human services, environmental conservation, and economic and business development.

The Powerball drawing is Wednesday at 9 p.m.