The likelihood of a rare event is often compared to winning the lottery for a reason: the latter is a very, very tough thing to do.
If you’re playing a typical lotto game where you pick six numbers from a pool of 49, your odds of choosing all six correctly are one in nearly 14 million.
In many famous lottery games those odds are even worse, as in one in 45 million for the UK Lotto, one in 140 million for EuroMillions’ and one in 292 million for the United States’ Powerball.
To put those numbers into perspective, you are much more likely to be struck by lightning (1 in 10 million), become an astronaut (1 in 12 million), or win an Oscar (1 in 11,500).
And yet, these lotteries and others are part of a multi-billion dollar industry that doesn’t seem to be fading in popularity.
There’s seemingly much more to the lotto’s pull that keeps so many people, especially those of certain backgrounds, buying tickets again and again.
Why People Play
The astronomical probabilities are actually one of the reasons so many play the lottery: most people can’t even comprehend what the long odds actually mean.
The human brain has trouble picturing what just one out of a thousand of something looks like, let alone out of several million.
Robert Williams PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Lethbridge who is also involved with the Alberta Gambling Research Institute told us, “We have no comprehension of what 14 million is, as we have no evolutionary experience with anything of this magnitude. It is equivalent to having to guess the house number on a particular street in a particular town or city in a particular province, with this address changing after each draw.”
In that equation, it’s much easier to picture the one winner than it is the millions of losers.
Like with casino gamers, lottery players are also guilty of buying into the gambler’s fallacy.
Many, especially those that have played a long time, think that eventually they will be ‘due’ a big win. But since each draw is its own separate event, the likelihood of winning has zero to do with how much a player has or hasn’t won in the past.
And like in poker, many long-term lotto players feel ‘pot-committed’, in that they need to keep playing in an attempt to recoup what they’ve already invested.
The lottery organizers themselves also engineer in a number of details that keep people playing draw after draw.
When possible, lottos are always quick to promote their winners and present them as everyday people that make players think, ‘if they can win, why not me?’. Professor Williams explained there is a theory behind this, known as ‘availability bias’. “With most major lotteries having continuous operations for the past 20-30 years, it is statistically very likely that in 2017 everyone should know someone who knows someone who has won the lottery. This makes winning seem more possible.”
Professor Williams also says, “The fact that you can choose your own numbers even though it has no impact on your chance of winning, capitalizes on the illusion of control”.
No group of people is fully immune to these allures, as evidenced by the many studies showing a sizable chunk of people across all demographics play the lottery at least occasionally.
But the biggest predictor of whether someone is likely to be a lotto player or not is their economic status.
In the United States for instance, a recent study showed that those in the lowest fifth of socioeconomic status had the highest rate (61%) of lottery gambling.
In at least one state, the highest lottery sales came in its poorest counties.
In the UK, these patterns are similar, with those on benefits being 4% more likely to play.
Overall, an even larger portion of the British population plays (70% of those over 18 compared to 57% of Americans).
The Good Cause Factor
Despite the long odds, many justify playing the lotto (other than with the potential of winning) with the fact that proceeds often go to charitable causes and organizations. Whether these justifications are sound or not depends upon where you live.
In the UK, about 30p of every £1 spent on several National Lottery, scratch card, and instant win games gets distributed to charitable and social organizations throughout the UK. Since 1994, these allocations have totaled to over £36 billion which has helped fund more than 500,000 projects throughout the country via the Good Causes Fund.
With the American Powerball game, about 31% of revenue (or $23 billion) went toward social causes, including education programs.
While this sounds like a nice sum going toward a good cause, the reality is that not all states (who keep the profits from their own individual ticket sales) use these funds as one might hope. For instance, while states like West Virginia return about 70% of profits to their state budget, others like Arkansas only put back around 20%.
In states like North Carolina, the lottery income actually replaces, not supplements, the taxpayer revenue that is supposed to go toward education.
What Happens After Winning
So you defy the odds by drawing the winning ticket. You make the call to your lottery provider, then you meet with their advisors to validate the ticket and figure out how you want the money to be paid out.
The decision to go public with your winnings is up to you (just 15% do), and if the prize is over a certain sum of money most lotteries will make legal counsel available to you.
‘The lottery will ruin you’ trope is well-known and we’ve all heard the story of the miserable lottery winner who says their life was so much better off before they won. However, some research has shown that winners’ lives largely remain unchanged.
Sadly, other studies have backed up this claim too.
According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, 70% of people who suddenly receive large amounts of money (i.e. winning the lotto) will lose all of that money within just a few years.
Another study examined how the happiness of lottery winners compared to a control group of new paraplegics and found that on average, the lottery winners were actually less happy than the accident victims.
It seems that everyday life’s little joys don’t have the same spark after the rush of a big financial windfall.
Despite the long odds, precarious consequences, and ambiguous social benefits, the lottery continues to prove powerful enough to not only keep us thinking ‘why not me?’ but also ‘it will be different for me when I win.’