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Will I win the $80 million Powerball Jackpot? When it comes to chance, don't expect to be rational


Most of us like to think that we make decisions in a rational, sensible way. We prefer to believe that when it comes to making choices, whether to get out of bed, buy a Powerball ticket, turn left at the next set of lights, or even buy that house, the choices we make typically reflect our desires; we choose what, all things considered, we want.  The process by which we make choices is pretty straightforward.  We consider the pros and cons of a particular choice, or perhaps even do a more formal cost-benefit analysis.  After weighing up our options, we choose the product we want the most.  For the most part, it is a process that is carried out in the conscious mind. Pretty straightforward. 






Lots of neurological, sociological and psychological research is now telling us that when thinking about mundane and pretty simple issues, such as small calculations, or even a shopping list, the brain areas associated with rational planning, such as the pre-frontal cortex tend to be more active.


But when thinking about difficult, exciting, interesting activities, including imagining what life would be like with 90,or 80 million dollars, the brain areas associated with emotion – such as the midbrain dopamine system – become more active. Images, colours, music, even social discussion means that the midbrain emotional area becomes dominant, and the rational part of the brain finds it hard to resist the temptation – the emotional centres of the brain, simply tell the rational part to shape up or ship out… and then, a very funny thing happens. The rational part of the brain agrees, and starts to look for evidence that supports the emotional brain – it becomes an ally in the search for reasons why the emotional choice is a good one (all of this is going on very quickly, and unsurprisingly, we are not conscious of it).


So when it comes to buying something that is based purely on chance, such as a lottery ticket, it’s our emotions that make the decision – there is simply nothing rational about it. Once we’ve made the decision, the optimism bias kicks in to protect our ego. To some degree, the optimism bias causes many of us to overestimate our degree of control as well as our odds of success.


But it isn’t a bad thing to be optimistic – it helps to protect us against depression –models of depression often include a sense of learned helplessness and loss of predictability and control. If we didn’t make decisions based on emotions and optimism, we would never get out of bed in the morning, and optimism makes us feel like we are in control, which is a good thing. To put it another way, we have evolved to rely on our emotions and optimism is a critical part of this. If we weren’t optimistic, we would never have left the savannah in search of a better life – and the Neighbours cast would spend their lives in Erinsborough, simply because they couldn’t imagine what life would be like in Queensland.


People who have clinical depression tend to be more accurate, and less overconfident in their assessments of the probabilities of good and bad events occurring to others, although they tend to overestimate the probability of bad events happening to them.


We all believe we are smarter, more ethical, more motivated employees, more sensible, better partners, and better drivers than the average person.  But we know, that this is statistically impossible. It is highly unlikely that the bride and groom are thinking to themselves at their wedding, “Well, this is a 50 – 50 chance”, but somebody has to be at the bottom of the heap – we are most likely to be somewhere in the middle.



PS. Don’t take any notice of systems, past patterns, most frequently drawn numbers, etc. There is no statistical basis in which to believe that the numbers that come up are anything more than random chance. Each number has an equal chance of being chosen… every time (unless it has already been chosen, obviously). And, your chances of winning are not reduced or increased by the number of people who put in an entry (although the prize pool may be). 

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