Why does anyone bother playing the lottery?

Powerball Image

The jackpot ended up being $1.6 billion, but the boards aren’t programmed to show that much. This week it’s back down to only $40 million. You think anyone but me will be playing?

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

Want to win a billion dollars? By playing the lottery?

Sorry, you’re no chance. Even if you did buy a ticket.

So why does anyone bothering playing the lottery?

Well the quick answer is – because it’s fun.

The biggest lottery jackpot ever has just been run and won, and it was for USA Powerball last Wednesday, January 14.

The prize was nearly $1.6 billion USD, which was shared by three winners, and the truly terrible news is that I didn’t win.

If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this article. I’d be looking for the right color yacht, to match my private jet, transformer car and team of mechanical wonder-monkeys.

The odds of any single ticket taking out USA Powerball are one in 292.2 million.

Compare that to the odds of being struck by lightning at one in a million, attacked by a shark at one in 11.5 million, and dying in a terrorist attack at one in 20 million.

Yet nobody thinks about those things happening as much as they fantasize about winning the lottery. Well not with the same enthusiasm anyway.

In science, any number below 0.01% or 1 in 10,000 is often seen as so small that the odds of it happening are considered to be effectively zero.

Meaning the odds of winning Powerball are way less than zero, so why did everyone go batshit mental about the whole thing?

It’d be far smarter to save up every lottery dollar by putting it in a jar. More responsibly too, but no fun at all.

The lottery is fun for us humans because we’re awful at numbers, but awesome at stories.

It’s the reason World Vision shows us one starving orphan, instead of telling us how many there are, and the lottery shows us actors pretending they’ve won, instead of telling you the actual odds.

It’s the same reason we’re so worried about shark attacks or terrorism. The chances of either of those things happening, by the numbers, are also effectively zero.

We see it happening all the time though, and even if it’s in a movie or fictional tv show, our brains think that because we are watching it happen, it’s likely to happen to us.

Which is why after seeing ‘The Ring’ I destroyed all my VHS tapes.

Lightning is a weird one. We can’t shoot the clouds with a spear gun, keep them out with a net, or send them back to where they came from, regardless of the fact that they’re a tiny chance of carrying lightning. So we don’t worry about it, and keep buying lottery tickets.

Our brains are so good at stories that for a moment they even feel real, and it genuinely feels great to fantasize about winning the lottery, to talk about it with others, and do some quick internet browsing for private jets and mechanical monkeys. Far better than than putting money in a jar.

So I’m going to keep buying lottery tickets. Although I know it won’t happen, it’s worth a few dollars to be able to dream about a transformer car.

By the by, the odds of winning any lottery never change no matter how high the prize. So it makes sense to buy more tickets as the prize increases. That’s right, no matter how many billions it reaches, the real chance of winning is still effectively zero.

And good luck!

Xavier Toby is a writer and comedian.

Catch him performing at Perth Fringe World through some of January and a bit of February.

His second comedy memoir ‘Going Out of My Mined’ is available now.

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