People across the country are buying tickets for tonight's Mega Millions jackpot, which has ballooned to more than $540 million. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.
High school teacher Joe Colacioppo is bright enough to calculate the odds that his lone Mega Millions ticket today will turn him into a $640-million-dollar man.
In fact, he took time to do the math: “There’s a greater chance of me winning the Nobel Peace Prize -- or of monkeys flying out of my butt, to quote ‘Wayne’s World.’ ”
So why did the social studies instructor at Smoky Hill High in Aurora, Colo. slap a dollar down on a lottery ticket for the first time in years, especially when the mathematical probability of his winning is 1-in-175 million?
“It’s the same reason I bought ‘The Hunger Games’ -- I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. To say I’m a skeptic, that’s an understatement. But it’s fun to have a horse in the race,” Colacioppo added. “Unless it’s a record (jackpot), I never do it. I think most people who regularly don’t play the lottery but who are playing this time just think: Oh, it’s a buck and everybody’s in it, and isn’t it exciting?”
So from a psychological view, what’s the tipping point that finally tempts folks who rarely jump into the lottery pool to take flying a leap? It is $300 million, $400 million, $500 million? Or, like Colacioppo said, is it when the jackpot hits a new record and the lottery becomes national news, becomes trendy?
“Your question is a good one. But alas, I am not aware of any study that actually tries to quantify the tipping point,” said Romel Mostafa, assistant professor of business, economics, and public policy at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.
But Mostafa, co-author of a 2008 study on low-income people who routinely purchase lottery tickets, did acknowledge that when those giant, flashing lotto-dollar signs gain more zeroes and more media coverage, many consumers just can’t help themselves.
“Usually, the larger the rewards and the lower the cost of buying lotteries, the greater the participation -- however the lower the winning probability,” Mostafa said.
“When the jackpots reach these insane amounts, the feeling becomes: I don't want to regret not having given myself the opportunity,” agreed Issamar Ginzberg, a Brooklyn-based strategy adviser to entrepreneurs. For the first time in his life, he bought not one ticket but 10.
Then again, Ginzberg -- a Hasidic rabbi -- also injects a bit of faith into the gambling equation: “You have to give God the ability to give you money in a natural manner,” he said. “What good is praying for money if you don’t enable (God) to give it to you? You have to buy a ticket to be in the game!”
Here’s one of the funny things about we humans: We don’t naturally calculate probabilities, said June Foley, professor of behavioral and social sciences at Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
“We calculate the odds through a very strange mechanism called the availability heuristic,” she said. “You guess the likelihood that something is going to happen based on how easy it is to think of an example of that thing happening.”
In other words, the quicker you’re able picture an event occurring, the more likely you are to believe it can. This is why -- despite the low odds on aircraft crashes and high number of vehicle accidents -- some people just refuse to fly and only drive from place to place.
Lotteries do, generally, attract large quantities of low-income ticket buyers. The best psychological explanation, Foley said, is that when people lose all their belief in social mobility, even the remote odds of the lottery seem like a worthwhile wager of their few bucks.
“They think: ‘If there’s no chance that I can really get rich through my own means, the only mechanism I have is the lottery,’ ” Foley said.
Of course, many of the lottery newbies are well-paid, well-off people -- or at least have enough education to grasp their true odds.
And then there are those folks who are highly schooled yet can’t quite get their heads around this whole Mega Millions thing.
Alicia Gay moved to New York City a few years ago and now works for the American Civil Liberties Union. As the possible lottery payoff loomed, she was mulling a ticket buy.
"Having an east coast liberal elitist moment,” Gay posted on Facebook Thursday afternoon. “I want to purchase a Mega Millions ticket but don't really know what this means or how to do so. #shame.”
Five hours later, Gay had figured it out.
"Actually," she revealed via email, "on my way to get it now (nervous!)"
Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of “The Third Miracle.”
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