Why Playing The Powerball Gives You Such A Thrill

Even though you know you won't win.
Gary Cameron / Reuters

Whenever I buy a Powerball ticket, I leave the liquor store floating on a cloud of dreams and wishes, suspended in a state of bliss as I imagine how I’m going to spend my millions. Of course, when the winning numbers are called later on that week, all of those hopes comes crashing down, and I’m the same slightly deluded lady I always was -- just a few dollars lighter.

Gambling expert Lori Rugle calls this dreamy time-space between purchasing a ticket and hearing the winning numbers the “fantasy world of the problem gambler." It's a time and space so pleasurable and enticing that people with a gambling disorder want to stay in it as long as possible, which is what motivates them to buy even more lottery tickets.

They will even prefer the “fantasy world" to a reality in which they do manage to win a substantial amount of money, she said. With that prize money comes pressure, stress, responsibility and decisions. An uncalled lottery ticket, on the other hand, is pure promise, hope and anticipation.

“That fantasy place is the perfect reality -- I’m a beautiful person, everyone loves me, there aren’t any problems, there aren’t any stressors, I’m not vulnerable and all my needs are met,” said Rugle, program director at the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"Even if I win the $1.5 billion, it’s not as perfect as that place in between, where we’d all like to live, where everybody is beautiful and there aren’t pressures and decisions."

Of course, most Powerball players know that they’re probably not going to win the jackpot -- or anything, for that matter. As it stands, the current odds for Wednesday night's $1.5 billion Powerball drawing are about one in 292 million. As Wired put it, the odds for winning are like throwing your name in a hat filled with the names of all other U.S. residents.

So why do we keep playing? Because that “fantasy world" -- pure emotional entertainment -- feels so damn good.

"Since winning itself is extremely unlikely, the utility to the average person who buys lottery tickets is in the experience: the purchase, the wait for the draw, and then the draw itself,” says psychologist Alain Samson.

In other words, the $2 price tag is buying that dreamlike state more than a likely worthless piece of paper. And because the “expense-to-payoff ratio” seems so good (paying $2 per ticket for a potential $1.5 billion), the purchase gets further rationalized as “worth it,” for the chance -- however remote -- of a huge, life-changing jackpot.

"People don't want to later regret not having 'been in it' if they don't buy a ticket,” Samson concluded. "And of course many people around them buy tickets, so there are social factors at work as well."

When the lottery stops being fun

About one percent of the U.S. population meets the criteria for pathological gambling, which is when people have a preoccupation with gambling that is difficult to control, interferes with relationships and daily life, or is used as an escape from depression, anxiety or another mental illness.

People with a gambling problem also view something like a lottery ticket in a totally different way, according to Rugle. Instead of recognizing the fantasy of the purchase, a problem gambler can become convinced that playing the lottery is a rational way out of their dire situation.

"That hope is such a powerful incentive,"said Rugle. "Especially if you haven’t had hope or learned to have hope in a more reality-based way.”

Apart from triggering gambling compulsions, the lottery has also been criticized for its disproportionate appeal to the poor, with some critics going so far as to refer to it as “regressive taxes on poor people.” Indeed, people in the lowest income brackets tend to spend the highest percentage of their income on lottery tickets compared to other groups of people. And this may influence gambling behavior.

“Across the world, any group that is the most disenfranchised is at highest risk for having gambling problems,” said Rugle.

The bottom line

As long as Powerball fans are purchasing tickets more for the social and emotional experience of excitement and anticipation, occasionally taking part in huge lotteries like this can be pure entertainment and harmless fun.

Powerballers should be on guard though, for signs that a lottery habit is becoming compulsive. If you’re buying more tickets than you intended, if the tickets are interfering with work, school or other parts of life, or you are using the lottery to avoid depression and anxiety, seek help with a gambling addiction specialist, says Rugle.

And she gives one more word of warning: The lottery is not for kids, no matter how harmless you think it is. Because their young brains are primed to seek out high reward for low effort, playing the lottery with them at a young age could give them a distorted view of gambling, transforming entertainment into something more problematic.

"We know that the younger somebody starts gambling, the more likely they are to develop a problem," said Rugle. "Just as you wouldn’t give an underage person a shot and a beer, don’t give them a lottery ticket."

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