The Why #39: “Why do people buy lottery tickets despite the minuscule chance of winning?

By Dan Monheit, 01.04.22

Question asked by Tess, Fitzroy

Why must we ruin everything, Tess? Sure, in reality the chances are miniscule, but dreams come true every day, don’t they? So while you’re busy doing the math (one in 292,201,338 chance of winning), I’ll be over here picking out upholstery for my new Bentley, browsing luxury accomodation in the Bahamas and deliberately sorting search results on by ‘highest price’.

After all, my numbers didn’t come up last week. Or the week before. Or the week before that. But this week, I can just feel it!

‘Feel what?’ I hear you ask.

Availability Bias, my friend.

Availability Bias

Availability Bias refers to our tendency to prioritise information that comes to mind quickly and easily when making decisions. Impactful memories that are recent, vivid or emotionally or personally significant are recalled more easily, and if something is easy to recall, we’re more likely to believe that it’s true or likely to happen.

In 1983, Nobel prize winning researcher Daniel Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky put this to the test. In a study, one group of university students were asked to guess the chances that a huge flood would happen somewhere in North America. Another group of students were asked to guess the chances of a flood happening in the state of California, specifically due to an earthquake.

Spoiler alert. California is inside North America, which means the likelihood of a flood happening there must be smaller than the likelihood of a flood happening anywhere in North America (including California).

Alas, the students believed that the chances of a flood were considerably higher in California.

Why? A few reasons. Whilst floods aren’t common in Cali, earthquakes are. Often a staple in the local California news cycle, the idea that ‘earthquake = California’ and ‘earthquake = flood’ felt familiar and remained top of mind for the participants. Plus, California is undoubtedly a far more vivid mental image than simply ‘somewhere in North America’.

Recent and vivid, the perfect recipe for Availability Bias.

So, back to my millions. Although we’re more likely to be struck by lightning, win an Oscar, get slapped at the Oscars, or be crushed by a meteorite, we still get those butterflies in our stomach as the numbers are called. It’s not that surprising given we’re hard wired to remember the incredible, vivid stories of the lucky few who have won big, long ahead of the millions of stories of people who never did.

For brands, the narrative isn’t about winning or losing — it’s about being easy to recall (ie mentally available). Showing up regularly and consistently is half the battle. From here, add prominent, distinctive brand codes and a sprinkling of memorable, emotional cues and you might just win the jackpot.

Behaviourally Yours,

Dan Monheit

PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check out why Netflix is so popular, when I can never find anything to watch here.

Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about Availability Bias on episode 2 of the Bad Decisions podcast.

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Want more?

Listen to Dan’s SXSW wrap up on the Mumbrellacast podcast.



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We’re an independent creative agency helping brands capitalise on the why, when, where, what and how of human behaviour.