Powerball: the Power of Fantasy Thinking

During the recent frenzy surrounding the $1.5+ billion Powerball jackpot, I wondered why so many people are willing to give their money to the government for the slimmest chance of winning a prize, but will vehemently oppose any form of tax increase to redistribute wealth in this country. The odds of winning the grand prize are 1 in 292 million. The highest chance Powerball ticket purchasers have of winning the lowest prize of $4 is 1 in 92, still pretty slim. The money that is not given away in prizes is simply a form of voluntary taxation which, depending on the state, goes to fund schools or other government programs. Empirical studies have shown that:

increased levels of lottery play are linked with certain subgroups in the U.S. population – males, blacks, Native Americans, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods.


Indeed, despite a well documented increase in income inequality, groups who have suffered the most as wealth disparity has accelerated, including African-Americans and the elderly increasingly oppose income redistribution through taxes. This can be explained by how people perceive their chances of getting ahead as opposed to whether or not they are really succeeding in doing so.

In  my work on grassroots systems change, I frequently encounter perceptions that do not always fit with reality. While I could spend a lot of time trying to convince people that they are voting against their self interest, I achieve greater success when I explore their perceptions of reality and meet them where they are at. In doing so, it is important that systems change advocates get to know those outside of their own socio-economic demographic to understand how their perceptions of reality truly play out.

One of the ways I have gotten to know many people outside of my own social circle, is through my son’s athletic teams. This was particularly true when his teams traveled to out of town tournaments, putting families who came from all walks of life together in a hotel for a long weekend. I vividly remember a conversation with one working class parent who worked on a factory assembly line, when we discussed my view that our public schools were inadequately funded. He admitted that before he had children in school, he opposed increased funding for schools because he believed his taxes were too high and that his money was being wasted.

However, he conceded that once his children entered school, he saw the value of his taxes at work. This self-interested view of reality caused him to shift his view  to support increased funding for schools.

What this conversation taught me is that there is nothing like real-life experience to change one’s views of how government works. If you experience government as a wasteful bureaucracy when you stand in line waiting too long to get your driver’s license, your views on taxes will generally be unsupportive. However, if you experience government as helping to provide your children a high quality education, you will support increased taxes  that you experience as helping your children.

Whether you are shopping for an appliance or paying taxes, in general, people want to feel like they are getting value for their money. Of course, this does not explain the likely scenario of throwing one’s money away when playing the lottery. This conundrum can be explained by fantasy thinking, which also explains why so many poor people oppose increased taxation on the rich even if it will fund programs to help them. Under fantasy thinking, millions of people play the lottery for the slimmest of chances of becoming wealthy. Through  that same psychological dynamic, lower income people oppose taxing the rich under the fantasy that they invest in the American Dream so fully that they believe they may one day become rich, and do not want to be taxed at a higher rate if their fantasy comes true.

For progressive systems change advocates, deftly using genuine self-interest through real life examples of helpful government programs, while acknowledging the reality of fantasy thinking, may be the winning combination to convince people to support policies that will help improve the lives of the greatest number of people who need the most assistance. A fantasy thinking lottery I could support, would be to give a free lottery ticket to every voter, with the winning ticket holder/voter receiving $1 million. I guarantee that would increase voter turnout more than any other method that has been tried.


For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.