7 Reasons You Buy Into the Lottery—Even When the Odds (Really) Aren’t In Your Favor

A psychologist shares why everyone's jumping on board. 

lottery-balls
Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

With the Powerball jackpot at a historic 1.5 billion, lottery fever is at an all-time high. But when the odds of winning are one in more than 292 million, we can't help but wonder: What makes people (including those who are generally frugal) inclined to partake? So we spoke with Dr. Frank Farley, a Temple University psychology professor who studies motivation and risk-taking, about seven common reasons people are clamoring for tickets.

1. It’s Thrilling
Perhaps the number one motivator? It's fun. There aren't many exciting things you can do for $2, making it a low price to pay for a bit of adventure. "It's kind of a thrill ride to see what will happen," Farley says. "The likelihood of winning is essentially zero, but you’re in the game.”

2. It Gives Us Hope
Though it might be short-lived, a little jolt of hope is motivating for a lot of people, Farley says. “Hope springs eternal, and I think a lot of people need a little bit of hope these days."

3. You Won... That One Time
For people who have won smaller lotteries in the past, it can be difficult to pass up the opportunity to take part in the biggest one. “It’s called intermittent reward," Farley says. "Maybe every once in a while they win something, so it keeps them going."

4. It’s Too Big to Ignore
This is what Farley calls the Mt. Everest motive—people saying to themselves, "How could I not do it?" “George Mallory was one of the first people to almost make it to the top of Everest," Farley says. "He was once asked 'Why did you do it?' and he said, 'It’s because it’s there.' If you’re a climber, you've got to do it. [The Powerball] is kind of a Mt. Everest motive for some people."

5. Everyone Else is Doing It
Referred to in psychology as an "emotional contagion," many people buy tickets because their friends and family members are getting on board. "There's definitely a social side to this thing," Farley says. "FOMO, or the fear of missing out, might also apply to some people. They don't want to miss out on this thing."

6. It’s a Conversation Starter
There's a lot worth talking about when it comes to the lottery—what happened to previous winners, or what you would do with the money (a personal chef! a new home! a lifetime supply of your favorite candy!). "It's a conversation piece," Farley says. "[People] want to stay up on things, so they throw in the two bucks, and it's almost like an entry into the conversation."

7. It’s a Hail Mary Pass
If your life is a mess and there's no solution in sight, you may be buying into the lottery as a sort of "Hail Mary." "Maybe, possibly, you can win, and that would turn your life around," Farley says.