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“I will buy X when I win the Powerball” posts are blowing up every social media channel and news outlet over the past week. The skyrocket in lottery ticket sales with the Powerball hitting its highest grand prize to date exposes the powerful (and slightly scary) influence the lottery has over our brains. We aren’t fools. Every person understands how unlikely the chances of picking the winning numbers are, yet most of us are going to buy at least one lottery ticket before tonight’s draw.
Simple math tells us our odds of winning tonight’s Powerball drawing are about 1 in 292 million, aka, the same odds as getting hit by lightning 20 times while driving your car to Six Flags.
So why are we addicted to the Powerball craze? The answer is tied to the neurological effects the lottery unconsciously has on our brains. Despite what all logic is telling you, here are three reasons why you are probably going to buy a Powerball ticket today (if you haven’t already).
Our prefrontal cortex goes into “Magic Thinking” mode.
Professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon, George Loewenstein, refers to a phenomenon he calls “magic thinking”, when a gut feeling or superstition overrides logic. Even though our brains can handle complex calculations, the odds of winning the lottery are confusing to it. Confusion and uncertainty activate our prefrontal cortex, which controls most of our decision making. When our brain encounters a problem it is uncertain about it reverts back to it’s more primitive functioning which leads to things like impulsive decisions, such as buying a lottery ticket. This is when illogical thinking like “I’m feeling lucky, I am going to win” replaces our reason based thoughts.
Our emotions get the best of us.
Go take a look at your Facebook newsfeed right now. How many of your friends have posted about what they will do with their lottery winnings? Have you posted about your own lottery fantasies? Our strongest emotions like happiness, sadness, and anxiousness are the ones most likely to drive us to take an action. The lottery is a catalyst for most people to fantasize about their dreams and hopes, cueing the same parts of the brain that would be activated if they were to actually happen. For example, picturing what it would be like laying on a beach with your lottery winnings would activate not only visual areas of the brain, but would also light up other senses like auditory when thinking about the sounds of the ocean breeze.
This in turn shoots dopamine (a feel good chemical in the brain that 93 million people playing candy crush everyday release) to the “reward” parts of our brain, including the ventral striatum, which has been tied to substance abuse. Because of this, we happily spend $2 dollars on a Powerball ticket for the brief moment of pleasurable emotions tied to simply thinking about what would happen if we won the jackpot.
We let FOMO get the best of us.
If you have surfed the web, watched the news, or talked to a friend in the past week, the odds are high that you have seen or heard the Powerball hype. We let fear get the best of us, and our minds begin to picture what would happen if we entered the lottery and won. We also think about not entering the lottery, but then always wondering if we could have won if we did enter. Both of these thought patterns lead to anxiety. Anxiety is a surefire way to build FOMO (fear of missing out). We see everyone buying tickets, including our family and friends, everyone talking about it, and because of that, we automatically want to hop on board and be a part of it too.