According to CBS News, Americans spend an average of $207 per person per year on lottery tickets. On the East Coast, the figures reach even higher, with the average Massachusetts resident spending an eye-popping $735 per year playing the lottery. Rhode Islanders part with an average of $514, and New Yorkers $400.
If the numbers above make you feel better about your lottery habit, they probably shouldn’t.
For one, the more people that play in a given pool, the lower your chances of winning—and they’re already not looking good.
When it comes to the big jackpots like Powerball and Mega Millions, mathematician and author of Finding Good Bets In The Lottery And Why You Shouldn’t Take Them, Aaron Abrams, tells NPR’s Robert Siegel, “Well, the odds are about one in 175 million. So, that means that you’re about 100 times more likely to die of a flesh-eating bacteria than you are to win the lottery.
Amram Shapiro, a strategic statistician and author of The Book of Odds, says to Time, “You’re far more likely to die at a trip to the Grand Canyon than win the Powerball,” continuing, “That’s the scale of all of this. It’s fascinating. They’re buying a dream.”
So what else is more likely than winning the lottery? According to Shapiro, the answers include, becoming a movie star, getting struck by lightning, and even dying from an asteroid strike.
While your odds of winning something are at least slightly better if you buy scratch-off tickets, it’s not exactly a retirement plan.
LendEDU, a lending site that also deals in financial literacy education, conducted an experiment attempting to determine an average “return on investment” with scratch-off tickets. They bought $1,000 worth of scratchers and documented the results. Of the 314 tickets purchased, a surprisingly high 68 of them (22 percent) actually won something. One particularly big win ($500 on a $20 ticket) helped them to recover a large chunk of the initial “investment,” but, even factoring in the average-skewing win, the site only recovered $974 of its initial $1,000, making the average return -2.6 percent.
Not exactly a wealth-building strategy.
So if the odds are so bad, why is playing the lottery still so enormously popular?
“There’s a point of view that says people who buy lottery tickets are being foolish because the expected return on their investment is so poor,” Shapiro tells Time. “But at the same time there is a kind of mass phenomenon that attracts people. What you’re really paying for is the right to dream about what it would be like to have your life utterly transformed by money.”
Human behavior expert Dr. Wendy Walsh agrees with Shapiro, telling CNN, “People love to have a rescue fantasy,” she says. “We have the Cinderella complex—there’s a fairy godmother who’s going to come in and save us.” Despite the abysmally low chances of winning, Walsh says of lottery players, “It doesn’t faze them because they’re in love with hope.”
According to Robert Williams, professor of health sciences and gambling studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, our brains may not even be capable of fully understanding how improbable a lottery win truly is.
“We evolved to have some appreciation of numbers,” Williams tells Business Insider.
Here’s an example of what Williams is saying: It’s easy to wrap your brain around the difference between odds of 1 in 10, 1 in 100, and 1 in 1,000.
But once you reach the vastly larger numbers involved in probabilities like winning the lottery, the odds become much more difficult to comprehend. For instance, odds of 1 in 25 million and one in 175 million don’t sound that different. Throughout the vast majority of human history, we simply had no reason to think about numbers that vast—there was no reason to count the leaves on a tree or the stars in the sky.
Williams also believes that a phenomenon known as “availability bias” is at play when it comes to the lottery’s popularity.
“Availability bias” is the name of the phenomenon that occurs when strong memories cause us to overestimate the likelihood of a given event. In the case of the lottery, we’re much more likely to hear about the few people who did win an enormous jackpot in the news than we are the millions who didn’t win.
According to Williams, “It makes [winning] seem possible.”
Despite the fact that both Williams and Shapiro agree that buying lottery tickets doesn’t make financial sense, neither wholeheartedly denounces buying them.
Williams says that playing is fine, so long as you keep in mind that there’s “no realistic chance of winning.” He sees the harm of losing $2 on a lottery ticket as near-negligible relative to the more severe cases of gambling addiction he sees in his gambling studies work.
Shapiro even bought his wife a Powerball ticket on her birthday. “Not because I had any statistical expectation of winning,” he told Time, “but because there’s value beyond the dollars.”
Though he fully understands that there’s a near-zero chance of actually winning, Shapiro says he bought the ticket “to give her that dream.”