“And may the odds be ever in your favor.” 

— Effie Trinket in “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins 

On November 8, 2022, Edwin Castro walked into Joe’s Service Center in Altadena, California, and walked out with a winning Powerball ticket worth $2.05 billion, the largest national lottery jackpot in history.  

The odds of Castro choosing the six winning numbers? One in 292.2 million. A person is far more likely to be struck by lightning (less than one in a million) than win the lottery. Why, then, do so many Americans play? To find the answer, we’ll need to dive into the psychology of the lottery and explore how drawings like the Powerball take advantage of mental processes and limitations to keep people hooked.  

Psychology of the Lottery: A Numbers Game 

The human mind evolved under conditions in which it wasn’t necessary to comprehend large numbers, let alone lottery-sized probabilities. As they creep up into the thousands, millions, and hundreds of millions, numbers become increasingly abstract and difficult to visualize.  

What are your chances of winning when the odds are 1 in over 292 million? Mathematics and statistics professor Steven Bleiler offers this analogy: A swimming pool measuring 40 feet wide, 120 feet long, and 5 feet deep is filled to the brim with M&Ms. A single green M&M is hidden among the mass of candies. The odds of winning the Mega Millions or Powerball jackpot is comparable to wading in blindfolded and picking that single green M&M.  

Gambler’s Fallacy 

Lottery players are particularly vulnerable to “gambler’s fallacy”: the irrational belief that recent events change the odds of something with a fixed probability. Lottery drawings like the Powerball are independent events. No matter how often a number is drawn, it’s just as likely to be drawn in the future. There are no patterns, making it impossible to predict the outcome of future drawings. Keep to the same lucky numbers, or select random numbers each week. It makes no difference.  

Many everyday events are interrelated—wear an outfit Monday and you’ll have to pick a different one Tuesday—which may explain why independent events are so hard to wrap our minds around. As impossible as it may seem, the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are as likely to be picked as any other sequence of numbers.  

Heuristics: How Our Minds Betray Us 

We make countless small decisions every day while under a time crunch or working with limited information:  

  • “It looks like rain. I’ll take an umbrella.” 
  • “I’ve eaten at that restaurant. I’ll order from there.” 
  • “There’s construction on the way to work. I’ll leave a little earlier.” 

Heuristics are mental shortcuts, or rules of thumb, we use to make snap decisions, freeing up cognitive resources for more complex tasks. Conscious or unconscious, heuristics help ensure we don’t get hung up on life’s endless details, but they can mislead us into acting on unfair biases, as is the case with lottery players.  

Availability Bias 

The availability heuristic helps us estimate probability by drawing on examples that immediately come to mind. We often hear news stories about a lottery winner’s life changing overnight, but what about the millions of losing players?  

By publicizing winners, lotteries promote the idea that wins are commonplace, when that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Availability bias helps explain why lottery players refuse to learn from past losses and instead spend money on what is sure to be a winning ticket—at least to them. 

Sunk-Cost Bias 

Sunk-cost bias occurs when a person makes increasing commitments to a failing course of action in order to justify the time and effort they’ve invested, leading to feelings of helplessness. Lottery players are particularly vulnerable to this process since many pick the same numbers each week. 

Imagine a lottery player named Dorothy. Every week, Dorothy plays the same numbers, and every week, she loses. She’s spent thousands of dollars on tickets over the years, which is why she can’t stop now. The thought of quitting one week only for her numbers to come up the next is enough to keep her going. She’s fallen victim to sunk-cost bias, which only becomes stronger with every passing week, month, and year.  

Illusion of Control 

Illusion of control occurs when a person overestimates the influence of their choices on outcomes, even when those outcomes are left to chance. Anyone who’s experienced a near miss—perhaps one number off from a winning ticket—and felt like they were a hair’s breadth from a payout has been influenced by this self-serving bias. Misled by the illusion of control, many lottery players believe skill can somehow tilt the odds in their favor. Players who pick their own numbers, for instance, are more confident in their odds of winning.  

Never Gamble on Your Future 

Considering the slim odds of winning and the biases and heuristics that make players vulnerable to addiction, we must insist that players contribute their hard-earned money to a more worthwhile pursuit … their education, for instance.  

The psychology of the lottery is far more nuanced than what we’ve covered here. If you’re interested in learning more about how mental processes shape our beliefs and behaviors, consider pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology online at The University of Texas Permian Basin.  

Entirely online, our BA in psychology program explores the theoretical and applied aspects of psychology. Courses like Social Psychology, which examine how our opinions and perceptions are the product of our environment, offer the chance to learn about the intricate subtleties of human behavior. Graduates, equipped with a degree and expanded skill set, are better prepared for a wide variety of careers in marketing, human resources, and public health, among many others.  

Fascinated by the human mind? Apply to our online BA in psychology program to learn all about the intricacies of mental processes and human behavior at UT Permian Basin.