The Lottery: Worth the Risk?

by Jonah Sachs ‘20

 Every day, millions of people around the world gamble through casino trips, horse races, and the lottery system. This low-risk, high-reward pastime seems too good to be true, yet the odds of just breaking even in these scenarios are slim to none. With such a low possibility of winning, what makes this gamble so appealing? Investigators trace this desire to hormones and brain patterns, much like other addictions of its kind.

 Researchers have determined that — much like psychoactive drugs — playing the lottery releases chemicals into the brain that invoke to joy and desire. Much like sugar and cocaine, dopamine, the “feel good hormone,” is released into the blood, training and encouraging the mind to allow similar behavioral patterns to continue. Evolved as an incentive to adequate behavior, early humans were given immediate satisfaction when they performed an action that helped them survive. Eating large meals, reproducing, and competing with others are all measures aiding in survival of the human race. Dopamine incentivized these actions to form habits, although what was once a useful evolutionary advantage in learning and developing has become a problem to those who abuse drugs and alcohol — and in this case, gambling.

 The ties between narcotics and the lottery don’t stop there, with one article by Scientific American describing how “drugs and gambling alter many of the same brain circuits in similar ways … In the middle of our cranium, a series of circuits known as the reward system links various scattered brain regions involved in memory, movement, pleasure and motivation.” The idea of winning enough money to last a lifetime can potentially alter these pathways, giving intense pleasure and happiness to the body, a feeling that often leads to addiction and over-indulgence.

 When the convenience store clerk hands over the ticket, scratch-off, or lottery numbers, is it possible to win? Unlikely, many reports show. The odds of winning a lottery like the powerball, a system with one of the highest payouts in history, varies game to game, with an average of one in 292 million, the same odds as getting struck by lightning three times in one’s lifetime.

 When determining if gambling and placing bets are really “worth it,” one must look at both sides of the argument. On the one hand, a few dollars can lead to temporary happiness, a factor that must not be overlooked. On the other, it could very well lead to addiction and sadness once the initial “high” has worn off. Psychologists and researchers alike agree: the risks that come with the lottery are often not worth the bursts of joy fabricated by hormones. The next time you invest a few dollars in a series of randomly generated numbers, acting like a code to a 1.5 billion dollar locked safe, think about just how worth it that slim chance may be.