There's not much specific research into why people who ordinarily don't play the lotto suddenly get interested when jackpots reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Clayton Neighbors is the director of the social psychology program at the University of Houston. He compares the current frenzy over the half-billion-dollar Mega Millions prize to people who typically ignore sports, until a local team starts to perform extraordinarily well.
"Most people probably haven't heard a whole lot about Mega Millions until the past week or so, when there's a lot of people talking about how high it's up. So, they're primed to do something that wouldn't have (normally) been in their conversation or thoughts."
He says the media's focus on the prize has triggered the lotto daydream in more people.
"There could be this life where I never have to work, and have as many cars and houses as I want. That's kinda what the lottery in general represents. And whenever it gets to the level it is now, I think it just exacerbates that."
But Neighbors says one thing big jackpots don't exacerbate is problem gambling. He says the stakes and odds in lotto are much lower than they are for other forms of gambling, such as card games. Also, he says lotto players are in it more for the fantasy, while casino gamblers are more likely to use that activity as a coping mechanism.