It's the ultimate fantasy: Walk into a store, plunk down a dollar, and with nothing but luck — really extraordinary luck — you win a giant lottery. Suddenly, you're wealthy as a sultan with enough money to buy an NBA team or your own island.
The odds of that happening, of course, are astronomical. But tell that to the optimists and dreamers across the country who lined up at gas stations, mini-marts and drugstores Monday and Tuesday for the last-minute buying frenzy in the Mega Millions jackpot. The $636 million prize — the second-largest in U.S. history — could grow by tonight's drawing.
So what drives people to play, and what makes them think their $1 investment— among the many, many millions — will bring staggering wealth?
“It's the same question as to why do people gamble,” said Stephen Goldbart, author of “Affluence Intelligence” and co-director of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in California. “It's a desire to improve your life in a way that's driven by fantasy. ... The bigger the fantasy, the tastier it gets.”
The Mega Millions jackpot soared to $636 million Tuesday, still short of the $656 million U.S. record set in a March 2012 drawing. The new huge prize stems from a major game revamp in October that dramatically reduced the odds of winning. If no one wins Tuesday night and the jackpot rolls over past the next drawing scheduled for Friday, it will reach $1 billion, according to Paula Otto, executive director of the Virginia Lottery and Mega Millions' lead director.
Between 65 and 70 percent of roughly 259 million possible number combinations will be in play when the numbers are drawn, Otto said. For the ticket-buying optimists, that's no deterrent.
The incredibly remote odds don't really sink in for people, said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has researched the motives underlying lottery ticket purchases.
“People don't really understand probabilities at all,” he said. “Once you have a bunch of zeros, it doesn't matter how many you have — one in 10,000, one in a million or one in a billion. ... People do understand the meaning of the word 'largest.' They overact to one dimension and underreact to the other.”
They also cling to a more romantic notion: Amazing things happen to others, so why not for me?
“When people are desperately sick, there's always a part of the brain that thinks there will be a miracle cure,” Loewenstein said. “If you want something to be true, your brain is awfully good at figuring out reasons, magical ones, that there's a good likelihood that it is true. The desire to win does drive a certain kind of frenzied optimism.”
The staggering size of the Mega Millions jackpot also makes this lottery special, attracting people who want to participate in a social, news-making event, said Jane Risen, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.
“The lottery happens every day,” she said, “but for some people it has to reach almost a cultural threshold before it becomes the thing to think about.”
What develops, she said, is a feeling of “anticipated regret.” In short, people worry about not playing.
“It's some version of ''What's the harm? I wouldn't want to be the idiot who didn't play the Mega Millions. What if I was the winner?”' Risen said. “It's a better safe-than-sorry philosophy: 'I'd better buy a lottery ticket just in case I was going to be the winner.”'
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