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Associated Press
A customer holds his Mega Millions lottery ticket Tuesday at Tobacco Plus in Muncie. The jackpot was an estimated $636 million

Lottery players join in frenzy

Country waits to see whether a winner has numbers drawn

– The numbers for the $636 million Mega Millions jackpot were drawn Tuesday night. Now, the country waits to see if there’s a winner of the second largest lottery jackpot in U.S. history.

The winning numbers were: 8, 14, 17, 20, 39; Mega Ball: 7. The cash option is estimated at $341 million, before taxes.

The jackpot now trails only a $656 million Mega Millions pot that was sold in March 2012.

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.

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.”

The Mega Millions jackpot soared to $636 million Monday, still short of the $656 million U.S. record set in a March 2012 drawing. The new huge prize stems from a major game revamp in October that dramatically reduced the odds of winning. If no one won Tuesday night and the jackpot rolls over past the next drawing scheduled Friday, it will reach $1 billion, according to Paula Otto, executive director of the Virginia Lottery and Mega Millions’ lead director.

Between 65 percent and 70 percent of roughly 259 million possible number combinations will be in play when the numbers are drawn, Otto says. For the ticket-buying optimists, that’s no deterrent.

“Even though the odds are against you, it’s just the excitement of, ‘Hey, I might wake up one day and be a millionaire,’ ” says Chris Scales, a 31-year-old hot dog vendor in downtown Nashville, Tenn., who brings in about $35,000 a year “if I really hustle.” He usually reserves his lottery playing for jackpots of at least $40 million.

The incredibly remote odds don’t really sink in for people, says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has researched the motives underlying lottery ticket purchases.

“People don’t really understand probabilities at all,” he says. “Once you have a bunch of zeros, it doesn’t matter how many you have – one in 10,000, one in a million or one in a billion. ... People do understand the meaning of the word ‘largest.’ They overreact to one dimension and underreact to the other.”

The staggering size of the Mega Millions jackpot also makes this lottery special, attracting people who want to participate in a social, news-making event, says Jane Risen, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

“The lottery happens every day,” she says, “but for some people, it has to reach almost a cultural threshold before it becomes the thing to think about.” What develops, she says, is a feeling of “anticipated regret.” In short, people worry about not playing.

“It’s some version of ‘What’s the harm? I wouldn’t want to be the idiot who didn’t play the Mega Millions. What if I was the winner?’ ” Risen says. “It’s a better safe-than-sorry philosophy: ‘I’d better buy a lottery ticket just in case I was going to the winner.’ ”

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