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Why Do Mega Millions Players Think They Can Defy The Odds?

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It’s the ultimate fantasy: Walk into a store, plunk down a dollar, and with nothing but luck – really extraordinary luck – you win a giant lottery. Suddenly, you’re rich as a sultan with enough money to buy an NBA team or your own island.

The odds of that happening, of course, are astronomical. But tell that to the optimists and dreamers across the country who lined up at gas stations, mini-marts and drug stores Monday for the last-minute buying frenzy in the Mega Millions jackpot. The prize soared to $636 million – the second-largest in U.S. history – in advance of Tuesday night’s drawing.

So what drives people to play, and what makes them think their $1 investment- among the many, many millions – will bring staggering wealth?

“It’s the same question as to why do people gamble,” said Stephen Goldbart, author of “Affluence Intelligence” and co-director of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in California. “It’s a desire to improve your life in a way that’s driven by fantasy. … The bigger the fantasy, the tastier it gets.”

In a piece called “Lottery-itis!,” Goldbart and co-author Joan DiFuria wrote on their blog last year on the Psychology Today website that in times of economic stress, playing the lottery is a way of coping with financial anxieties and uncertainty.

“We may seek a magic pill to make us feel better,” they wrote. “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. “

The Mega Millions jackpot is just $20 million short of the $656 million U.S. record set in a March 2012 drawing.

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