The Point of a Powerball Ticket Isn’t The Money

This week, I’d like to give a tip of the hat to the Washington Post, my hometown newspaper.  On the front cover today of The Express, their free daily, they have this image, shown here. The tag line: 

“Sorry, but you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine than you are to win tonight’s $500M Powerball jackpot”.

Amid all of the news reports, talk radio commentary, and social chatter about tonight’s 500 million Powerball jackpot, this image stopped me dead this morning (no pun, of course).   I had to laugh.   Not because it shows that we’re all stupid to buy tickets (we’re not necessarily).  But because the image hits at the irony of the lottery and other infinitesimally small events — vividness and imagination matter more than the odds.  

Yes, the odds are clear – if you buy a ticket, you’re not going to get your money back.   If you buy a ticket really thinking “hey, I might win,” that’s a mistake, mathematically.  There’s no way to hide that.

The lottery, and any gambling, is about something else.   A $2 ticket is the price of having a little fun – imagining what it would be like, getting excited about the possibility.   It’s much easier to imagine yourself winning (thanks to frequent reports about previous winners) than it is to imagine yourself getting struck by lightning, or getting hit by a vending machine.  Easy to imagine = feels more likely to happen = more exciting.  The fact that “you never know” (i.e. that the outcome is random) makes it all the more enticing for our brains.   A $2 ticket may also buy a nice story, like the folks in this line in Arizona:

 I’m a personal finance and psychology guy, and I’m not going to say “don’t play the lottery.”   Instead, I’d put it this way:  it’s not “playing the lottery,” it’s “paying for the lottery.”  You’re not going to win (sorry…), and the local school system is not going to be better off (on net, after the government moves money around for other purposes).  But you are buying something – some fun, a good story, etc.  Is that worth the price?   Maybe.  Could you buy fun and a story cheaper? Possibly.  But that’s up to you.    

So, back to the vending machine.  Telling people that the odds of winning are zilch isn’t going to affect anyone.  Everyone already knows that and another reminder isn’t going to change anything.  But, a really vivid picture of a dude under a vending machine – now that’s cool.