The Irish Times view on playing the lottery: irrational appeal

The chances of winning the EuroMillions jackpot are one in 140 million – not that that deters anyone

It could be you, goes the slogan. But it's extremely unlikely. You have far better odds of becoming a saint, giving birth to identical quadruplets or dying from flesh-eating bacteria than you do of winning the EuroMillions jackpot, for which the chances of success after buying one ticket are just under one in 140 million.

Not that that seems to deter anyone. Irish people spend more than €800 million a year on the national lottery, 22 per cent of that on EuroMillions. With scratch cards, the odds are better (as low as four or five to one), but the payouts are smaller, meaning a different calculation is at play for the buyer.

And they bring their own risks; the organisation Problem Gambling Ireland has warned that while lottery draw tickets are at the lower end of the gambling harm scale, scratch cards, with their hit of instant gratification, are closer to the addictive gambling of slot machines.

By any rational measure, EuroMillions is a mug's game. So why do so many people play? The Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman holds that individuals' decisions are not always driven by an accurate assessment of the probability of an event happening.

People will therefore often take unreasonable risks to try to avoid a big loss and, conversely, will take an outwardly irrational punt on the prospect of a big win, however remote their chances. "A lottery ticket is the ultimate example of the possibility effect," Kahenman writes in his best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

“Without a ticket you cannot win, with a ticket you have a chance, and whether the chance is tiny or merely small matters little. Of course, what people acquire with a ticket is more than a chance to win; it is the right to dream pleasantly of winning.”

All it takes to renew that dream is the occasional story of a big payout, which is why news of the €175 million EuroMillions jackpot win for a family in Co Meath this week will convince thousands of people that, against all odds and against their better judgment, it could be them.