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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

How can I win the lottery?

Category: Society      Published: March 23, 2013

lightning bolt
You have a greater change of being killed by lightning than winning the Mega Millions, even if you buy a ticket every month for the rest of your life. Public Domain Image, source: NOAA.

You can't. There are only two kinds of people who play the lottery: 1) people who get a thrill out of losing money, and 2) people who don't understand basic mathematics. If you think there is a third kind of person ( a "lucky" person, a "gifted" person, etc.), then you definitely are the second type and don't understand mathematics. The winner of a lottery is randomly chosen. For this reason, the intelligence, skill, honesty, poverty, creativity, or luck of the participants has absolutely no bearing on who wins. Being random, the rate at which a particular participant wins is directly proportional to the number of people playing for single-winner lotteries, and directly proportional to the number of possible answers for number-guessing lotteries. For example, the Mega Millions lottery has 175,711,536 possible answers, and only one right answer wins the jackpot. That means that each ticket has a one in 175,711,536 chance in winning the jackpot. If you played the Mega Millions once a year, it would take (on average) 175,711,536 years to win the jackpot. If you bought a hundred tickets every day (which would cost you about $37,000 a year), it would take you 4,800 years to win. In order to win the jackpot once in your adult lifetime (say, 50 years), you would have to buy $10,000 worth of tickets every day for the rest of your life. Feeling lucky does not change these numbers, it just makes it easier for you to fool yourself that you are somehow special so the laws of the universe don't apply to you. Many feel that lotteries are unethical as they amount to a tax on stupid people. The people who play the lottery; the poor and uneducated; need food assistance, job training, and education and not an additional tax. These concepts apply equally well to all types of gambling that rely solely on chance, from roulette to slot machines.

If you buy a Mega Millions ticket every month for your entire life, you have a 1 in 290,000 chance of winning the jackpot once in your life. According to LiveScience, there is a higher chance that you will die from an asteroid impact (1 in 200,000),  a lethal bee sting or snake bite (1 in 100,000), or a lightning strike (1 in 84,000). If you honestly believe you will win the Mass Millions jackpot tomorrow, then you must also logically believe that you will be struck dead by lightning, be killed by a bee, or smashed to pieces by an asteroid tomorrow. Once you believe that one very low-probability event will personally happen to you, you must logically believe that all low-probability events will. These beliefs make for a very dim and misguided existence.  In contrast, your odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 100. That means that out of the 100 people that live in your apartment complex or on your block, on average one will die in a car accident. If you go to a Red Sox game and look around at the 37,000 other fans in Fenway Park, 370 of them will die in a car crash, 33 will die in a fire, and 4 will drown. Odds are that none of them will get killed by lightning, bees, or asteroids, and none of them will ever win the Mega Millions jackpot even if they all play the lottery every month for the rest of the lives. You will get rich far quicker by driving the speed limit and avoiding an accident than by playing the lottery. I have used Mega Millions for the purpose of illustration. But the concept applies to all large lotteries.

You may argue, "I know my odds are low, but someone has to win." You are right. Somehow does have to win. That someone is not you. Someone also had to be Napoleon. That someone is not you. Someone was also strangled to death by her own scarf while riding go-karts. That someone is not you. You will not be strangled by your own scarf, so you have no need to fear scarves. Someone was pushed into a grinding machine by a robot. That someone is not you. Fantasizing about how wonderful it would be to win the lottery will not make that one person you any quicker than it will turn you into Napoleon.

Why do people keep playing the lottery when they consistently lose and the odds are so against them? The answer may be dopamine. Dopamine is a natural neurotransmitter that regulates reward-driven behavior. Rewarding behavior such as eating and finishing a task raise levels of dopamine. Stimulating drugs such as cocaine and nicotine are believed to have such a powerful effect because they unnaturally trigger high levels of dopamine. The amazing thing about the dopamine response is that dopamine increases before the reward is actually obtained. Simply expecting a reward is enough to trigger higher dopamine. It is not the winning, but the expectation of winning that gives gamblers a drug-like high and keeps them coming back for more. Gambling is addictive in the same way that cocaine is addictive.

Topics: gambling, lottery, odds, rational thinking, statistics, winning the lottery