03/30/2012 01:24 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Mega Millions Tickets: Why We Buy Into The Lotto

Americans have come down with a serious case of lotto fever. Symptoms, we've found, include a suspension of statistical reality, extreme optimism and the appearance of cartoon-like dollar signs in the eyes of otherwise healthy individuals.

With the Mega Millions jackpot at a record high -- the grand total hit $640 million Friday morning -- tickets are selling at a rate of 2 million an hour in New York City alone, HuffPost Money reports. In Los Angeles, lottery hopefuls are waiting in line for up to two hours to buy a chance at the golden ticket. With no lottery available in their state, Las Vegas residents drove to Primm, a city straddling the Nevada/California border, to wait four or five hours in line to buy tickets. And on the Twittersphere, #IfIWonTheLottoIWould is building up a virtual community of dreamers.

We've all caught the bug (yup, the Healthy Living editors are buying our tickets this afternoon), because there's something incredibly irresistible about the fantasy of imagining how half a billion dollars would change your life.

But the cold, hard truth is that no matter how hopeful we are, our odds of winning are 1 in 176 million. The odds of being struck by lightning at some point during your lifetime? 1 in 3,000.

So if it's such a long shot, why do we play? What compels us to throw our dollar tickets into the ever-growing pot?

The reason may be that people typically have a hard time understanding statistics and odds ratios, explains Steven Meyers, professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Ill. He describes it as an "exceptionalism mentality": when people engage in a risky behavior, like smoking or drunk driving, they're more likely to estimate that nothing bad will happen to them. "People think there’s something about them personally that’s going to insulate them from risk," he told The Huffington Post.

And the Mega Millions phenomenon is the exact opposite: people start to believe they are uniquely likely to win the jackpot and beat the odds.

The current economic climate may play into the craze, as well -- when times are tough, the fantasy of a different world, even if it only lasts until the winning numbers are read, can become a satisfying escape.

"In a time where so many people are hurting economically (or preoccupied, even if it hasn’t affected them as acutely), this lotto jackpot, because of the abundance of the pot, really allows people to fantasize in fun and exciting ways," Meyers explains.

Stephen Goldbart, Ph.D. delved into the phenomenon for Psychology Today:

So when we have been affected by what we have called the "financial anxiety epidemic" in which we feel tired, uncertain of what to do, and disempowered, we may seek a magic pill to make us feel better. Ah yes, buy a lottery ticket. Feel again like you did when you were a child, having hope that a better day will come, that some big thing will happen that will make everything right, set the course on track. In reality, buying a lottery ticket is gambling. But in fantasy, it lets you believe in magic: that you will be the one who spent a little and got a lot; that you will defy the extraordinary odds against winning.

And the good-old bandwagon effect doesn't hurt either -- in the midst of massive media attention and a national conversation of hope, it makes sense that "if everyone else is doing it," you may as well, too.

"It gives people a social outlet because they’re talking about it, even if they’re all going to lose," Meyers says. "It allows them to participate in a broad social event. They feel like they’re becoming part of something."

By and large, Meyers says buying a few tickets is all in good fun. A problem develops, though, when people without discretionary income start spending large amounts of money to buy into the lotto dream. According to Wired.com, households bringing in less than $12,400 a year spend roughly 5 percent of that on lottery tickets. The reason, explains a 2008 Carnegie Mellon paper, may be that people are actually more likely to participate in the lotto when they believe their incomes are below the standard.

"The reality is that for people with poor earning potential, it’s viewed as a possible way out," Meyers says. "If you have the discretionary cash to do it, it’s OK. But if it’s a choice between bus fare to work and lotto tickets, meeting basic expenditures is always more important."

When a winner is finally selected and lotto fever dies down, Meyers expects the lottery losers will get back to their everyday lives without too much disappointment.

"Even though people think they have a better chance than they actually do to win, very very few people will be surprised when they don’t win," Meyers says. "People misinterpret the odds of winning. But they still uniformly believe it’s going to be a long shot."

CORRECTION: A previous version of the article misstated that people in Las Vegas lined up to buy lottery tickets. However, these Las Vegas residents had actually traveled to Primm Valley Lotto Store in Primm, a city that straddles the Nevada/California state line to buy their tickets. The article has been fixed to reflect that change.