With the Powerball jackpot already estimated to be three quarters of a billion dollars, and with a $1.6 billion Mega Millions ticket just having been sold in South Carolina a few days ago, Americans are in the midst of lottery fever. And while we all know, at least in our heart of hearts, that we're almost certainly not going to win the lottery, there's a psychological mechanism that allows us to convince ourselves otherwise.
As Business Insider reports, the odds of winning the Mega Millions are one in 292 million -- ever-so-slightly better than the odds of winning the Powerball, the odds of which are one in 302 million. And while it could be considered an enjoyable mental exercise to list the things that are more likely to happen to you than winning the lottery -- such as getting struck by lightning or being attacked by a shark, most people already know that the odds are astronomical.
However, psychologists say that this awareness won't stop your brain from convincing you that you're going to win.
Mike Robinson, an assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior at Wesleyan University, says that the human brain tends to regard things with long odds as important. Because the odds of winning the lottery are so astronomical, our brains conclude that the lottery is important -- and so we buy a ticket, thinking that our numbers are going to come up.Of course, the downside to this fact is that our brains place less importance on real things that are statistically likely to happen. Many Americans who can afford health insurance don't buy in, even though it's all but certain that they made need it some day.
Then there's the teasing nature of the lottery, the fact that so many come so "close" to winning. It's what keeps casinos in business -- the first two wheels on the slot machine are triple diamonds while the last one stops just short. A poker player desperately needs an Ace of Spades on the river, but receives an Ace of Hearts. It's called the gambler's fallacy, and it's the same psychological trick employed by the lottery as it is by the casino. Getting half of the numbers right -- and being one or two digits short on the others -- doesn't mean that you're any closer to the jackpot, statistically. But your mind may be convinced otherwise.
Many people are also possessed of the belief that there's a way to game the lottery to their advantage. Many gamblers -- and that includes lottery players -- convince themselves that if they work at it long enough and hard enough, they'll crack the code that brings in the big jackpots. That's not mathematically possible, of course, but the human brain can be trained to believe it.
At a certain point, the large nature of the mathematical odds may become mentally overwhelming. The average individual is ill equipped to truly grasp the nature of odds ranging in the hundreds of millions to one. The daily routine of most people involves much smaller figures -- one may need a dozen eggs, or one's paycheck last week may have been $800. Those are numbers that can be easily grasped or visualized. But $750 million? Or the one-in-292 million odds of getting there? Such enormous figures may simply elude comprehension, yet another factor in the confusing game that is the lottery.