by Chris Godfrey, Sessional Lecturer at the ICMA Centre where his many research interests include Behavioural Finance.
Last week, the world was seized with the spectacle of long lines of Americans queuing to buy tickets for the Powerball lottery, spurred on by the prospect of winning the largest jackpot in history.
The eventual advertised annuity value of the jackpot was an enormous $1.586 billion, driven up by a series of rollovers from previous draws in which no ticket won a jackpot, and by the frenetic buying of tickets. Prior to the previous draw on Saturday 9 January, California Lottery spokesman Mike Bond had reported ticket sales of $2.8 million per hour, against the usual average of $1 million a day, but the craze continued when this draw resulted in a 19th successive rollover: on the afternoon of Wednesday’s draw, the Massachusetts State Lottery reported that they were selling $37,615 worth of tickets every minute.
But how do we explain the long lines of those queuing up to buy tickets, sometime reaching spectacular lengths?
Behavioural finance may be able to help. One of the first questions this subject area wrestles with is why some people both buy insurance and also take part in lotteries, so that they were sometimes apparently risk-averse (paying to avoid financial risk) and sometimes actively risk-seeking (taking on gambles where, on average, they would consistently lose).
One of the insights of Kahneman and Tversky, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, was that people judge events not in relation to their actual probabilities, but by their perceptions of their probabilities, and that they tend to overweight extremely unlikely events while underestimating the likelihood of more common events. We see this in many other areas of life: news stories about the risks from vanishingly unlikely events, such as plane crashes, gain far more traction and cause much greater public anxiety than stories about much more common risks, such as road accidents. They also noticed that we find it increasingly difficult to assess changes in probabilities as they become increasingly remote: we may have a good intuitive feel of the difference between a probability of 1 in 5 and 1 in 10, but we find it much more difficult to assess the difference between a probability of 1 in a million and 1 in two million. When, in October 2015, the operators of the Powerball lottery changed the jackpot odds from 1 in 175,223,510 to 1 in 292,201,338 in order to increase the maximum payout, we’re simply not well equipped to assimilate that it means that the chances of a winning ticket had just gone down by 40%.
Even if people know that they will lose money on the Powerball lottery on average, once behavioural finance comes into play, the chance at the jackpot makes it feel like a good deal.
Since we tend to perceptively overweight the likelihood of highly improbable outcomes, we can show that behavioural biases will lead people to accept gambles where they will lose, on average, provided there is a small chance of a sizeable jackpot payoff; in statistical terms, behavioural investors will accept investments which are strongly positively skewed even if they have a negative expected return. This has been suggested as one reason why shares in companies which are very nearly bankrupt stay higher than we might expect, since a small number do indeed go on to make dramatic recoveries. This is compounded by skewed perceptions of how often people actually have won in the past, what Kahneman and Tversky call “availability”; the mental image of winning is made easier by the massive publicity given to lottery winners and lottery operators’ advertising efforts.
The psychological effect of the huge jackpot also, surely, had an effect: not only do lottery sales increase as rollovers pile up, but a rollover which sells more tickets for one draw will also sell more tickets for subsequent draws, so that the avalanche of sales for the Powerball lottery draw on the previous Saturday itself could be said to have contributed to the even larger wave of lottery mania on the Wednesday. Social networks, also, surely played their part: a pair of fascinating studies from Finland found that people were more likely to buy the shares and the cars that those near them had bought previously, and a study on the Dutch postcode lottery found that lottery players were more likely to have other lottery players as immediate neighbours than non-players.
Heart over head
Relevant, too is the way in which people tend to divide up spending and income into different budgetary compartments, so that people may be buying lottery tickets out of the imaginary budget they have allocated to Entertainment, whereas they wouldn’t want to out of the imaginary budget they’ve marked for Pensions; Behavioural Finance calls this “Mental Accounting.”
Beyond these calculations, however, we need to consider that the lottery jackpot itself forms a psychological object of desire, or “phantastic objects,” onto which wishful thinking is projected, and toward which those taking part are moved by emotion rather than by any kind of calculation. In case we think of only lottery punters being subject to these forces, this has been argued to underpin the exuberance of the dot com bubble and the erstwhile appeal of hedge funds. Doubtless, we Behavioural Finance researchers will be studying the data from last week’s lottery for some time to come.
If you found this story interesting, you can study Behavioural Finance as a Masters degree at the ICMA Centre, part of the triple-accredited Henley Business School. Find out more about the MSc Behavioural Finance here: icmacentre.ac.uk/courses/msc-behavioural-finance
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