I’m not a frequent gambler. In fact, I’ve only been to a casino once, for a bachelorette party in Atlantic City. But when the MegaMillions hit $656 million earlier this year I, like most Americans, went out and purchased a few tickets—despite the well-known 1-in-175 million odds.
I couldn’t help it. Dreams of paying off student loans, buying a house in full, and having some spare cash to travel were too tempting to ignore.
The lottery system in North America is a $70-billion-a-year business, larger than the music, movie and porn industries combined. More than half of us have played in the past year, even though we know the possibility of winning is miniscule. Stephen Goldbart, a psychologist, co-author of "Affluence Intelligence" and co-founder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute, says that we’re driven by the hope of possibly winning, and also by the fact that the tickets are so cheap.
“The lottery touches on the fantasy that all of our problems can be solved with no effort, and for just a tiny investment,” says Goldbart. “What’s a dollar when there’s a chance you won’t have to worry about money ever again?”
This dream of a quick resolution to our problems may explain why the lottery is the most popular among the poorest households—earning it the labels of an unfair or regressive tax. Wired magazine has reported that households that make less than $12,400 a year spend the most of any group on the lottery, nearly 5 percent of their annual income. (The North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, unsurprisingly, denies that poor people play more.)
Lottery systems tap into this unfettered hope in their advertising campaigns. The New York Lottery uses the slogan “Hey, You Never Know.” New Jersey’s is similar: “Give Your Dreams a Chance.” According to a 2009 study of 920 Canadian lottery ads, these types of campaigns “conveyed a powerful imagery of plentitude and certitude in a world of potential loss where there was little reference to the actual odds of winning.” They also have the most impact with younger generations.
But even if the meager odds of winning were given more airtime, it might not make a difference. Lottery ticket sales have seen record highs in recent years.
“Since the economy took a downturn in 2008, we’ve had an anxiety epidemic in America,” says Goldbart. “The map to the middle class, how to maintain a comfortable living, is gone. So instead, we give in to a magical, childlike thinking that all our problems can be solved by spending a few dollars on lottery tickets.”
It also doesn’t help that the higher the jackpot, the more buzz and media coverage there is surrounding it. The age-old “everyone’s doing it” excuse is another primary reason to play, especially when the jackpot hits hundreds of millions, says Goldbart.
While it never hurts to dream, try not to go overboard by spending a good chunk of your income on tickets, says Goldbart.
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