Have you ever wondered why we play the lottery?
The odds of winning are so astronomically small that we are more likely to be hit by lighting than we are to win. That makes it a negligible chance that realistically, no one should even consider as a good use of their money.
And yet it is a use of our money. Many of us will spend upward of several dollars a week playing and some people will go far, far above that amount. What drives this behavior though and is it a sign of poor decision making or self-control?
Why We Play the Lottery in Spite of Everything
In the UK, the chances of winning the lottery are around 1 in 45 million. That is astronomical odds.
The cost of playing the UK lottery is £2 (about $3), which equates to £8 a month or £96 a year. 10 years and you’ve spend 1K playing the lottery.
And this is before you bear in mind that many people will buy two, or even three tickets.
This is even more perplexing when you consider that it is human nature, as mandated by evolution, to be ‘risk averse’. This means that we are naturally inclined not to gamble because we view the risk of losing our resources as being a much bigger motivation than the risk of gaining resources.
If you were asked to spend $20 in order to be in with an 8/10 chance of winning $100, there’s a good chance that you would not spend the money. That’s despite it being a clearly good move, in terms of the numbers.
Emotionally, we do not like risk and we will go out of our way to avoid taking any.
So why are we so happy to take the risk of the lottery?
Partly, it’s the small entry cost, which is small enough that it doesn’t seem like a risk at all. Of course, it all adds up very quickly but this doesn’t feel like a risk because the increase is incremental. Because we are spending small amounts of money over time, rather than spending the full amount in one lump, it feels like a lot less and it is much easier for us to convince ourselves.
Another factor is that we all believe on some level that we have what it takes to defy the odds. This relates back to our ‘personal fable’ that we craft during adolescence. We all believe we are smarter, more attractive, and even luckier than everyone else. And that means we find it hard to accept that there’s no way we can possibly win. This goes hand in hand with the fact that we tend to overestimate positive outcomes and underestimate negative ones.
Then you have the fact that we all like to have some sense of hope. Even if we that hope is very slim. This was most tragically demonstrated during WW2 at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Here, one of the ways that the Nazi’s prevented a mass riot was by enforcing the idea that they could buy their freedom by working hard. The words were thus emblazoned above the gates ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – meaning ‘work makes free’.
If we were being very cynical, then we could go as far as to suggest that the lottery and games like it help to keep us placid while we work menial jobs. While it’s unlikely (seeing as most lotteries are independent organizations), it’s a concept that has been regularly tackled in films and books like The Island and Cloud Atlas.
Playing the Lottery Is Addictive
Another big factor is the simple fact that playing the lottery is addictive because the anticipation of hearing the results creates a rush of hormones and neurochemicals that make us feel good and are addictive in nature.
The specific neurochemical responsible here is one called dopamine. This is often mistakenly referred to as a pleasure hormone or a reward hormone, when in fact, it is actually released in the greatest quantities when we are working toward a goal or when we anticipate a reward. This is the brain’s way of telling us we’re on the right track and that we should repeat this behavior. And it’s dopamine that makes the behavior addictive.
Dopamine is not the rewarding feeling you get after eating chocolate, it is the feeling that drives you to seek out chocolate.
And likewise, dopamine is the neurochemical that makes gambling so exciting. We can actually see this in studies on roulette players (1) that show as much dopamine activity in the critical areas (the D2 receptors or nucleus accumbens) when the player has a near-miss, as when they have a win.
In fact, some players even report a sense of feeling deflated when they win!
Dopamine also happens to be one of the most addictive neurotransmitters of all and one of the neurotransmitters most associated with addictive behaviour. This is the reason that people get addicted to heroin and cocaine – and it’s the reason you get addicted to gambling too.
Even when you lose, it feels great – and that’s why we keep playing even in the face of repeated defeat.
The psychology of entrapment also plays a role. This is what happens when someone picks a set of lucky numbers.
Here, you might pick the same numbers every single week thinking that this will improve your odds of winning the lottery.
However, this then creates a new problem: if you stop playing and your numbers come up, you’ll then have the knowledge that you would have won had you played that week. And this is something that many people can’t cope with.
And as a result, this actually ‘traps’ people psychologically into playing!
In some ways, what’s equally interesting is the psychology underlying many of the complex strategies people will use to win. These range from entering into lottery with friends or colleagues, to using a few of the same lucky numbers, to choosing numbers that will present a good ‘spread’.
In reality, when the odds are so astronomically stacked against you, these heuristics are naturally powerless. And yet many of us swear by them.
That’s because players using these strategies are falling victim to what are known as cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is in short an error in thinking. Often our brain will take shortcuts or use other strategies to try and act more efficiently. This is where stereotypes come from for example – it’s easier for the brain to suppose something is true until it is given more detailed information by applying one truth to an entire group.
In this case, an example of a cognitive bias that has a big impact is the appropriately-named ‘gambler’s bias’. This one describes the way in which many people will swear that a number will eventually come up when a die is repeatedly rolled and that the chance of it coming up increases with each roll.
For instance, if you were to flip a coin and it landed on heads 10 times in a row, then you might predict that the next toss would land on tails. This is despite the fact that the likelihood is still 50/50 and will be 50/50 every single time you throw that coin! The likelihood of throwing 10 heads in a row is miniscule but even after 9 throws, it’s still 50/50 that the last one will be a heads. It’s hard to get your head around and that’s why the brain takes the shortcut it does!
This explains why someone might stick with the same numbers believing that eventually they’ll have to come up – but of course there is zero truth in that.
Another similar example is the ‘availability heuristic’. This describes our tendency to call upon our recent memory for an ‘available model’ of what is likely to happen. In other words, if we have just seen a 15 get drawn, then we might mistakenly think that 15 is in some way ‘lucky’ and thus add it to our own sequence.
Another problematic tendency of the brain is to judge actions on outcome. If your friend accidentally smashes your mug, then you might be angry at them even though it was an accident. That’s because you’re basing your reaction on the outcome.
Likewise, you might feel as though you’re receiving bad advice in gambling or playing the lottery if your outcome is bad. Of course there’s no such thing as good advice in the lottery because it’s all just luck! But the tendency to focus on outcome makes it very hard for us to accept this.
For all these reasons, we keep on playing and we keep on playing using strange and inventive methods. We’re getting a bit of a psychological kick out of it though, so there’s no harm done – and especially when the money is going to a good cause.
Just try to understand the motivations behind your actions and accept your ultimate powerlessness in the face of such gigantic odds. And with that in mind, maybe limit your playing to a couple of times a month…