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. The $586

million prize - the fourth-largest in U.S. history - could grow by

Tuesday night's drawing.

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."

In a piece called "Lottery-itis!," Goldbart and

co-author Joan DiFuria wrote on their blog last year on the Psychology

Today website that in times of economic stress, playing the lottery is a

way of coping with financial anxieties and uncertainty.

"We may seek a magic pill to make us feel better,"

they wrote. "Ah yes, buy a lottery ticket. Feel again like you did when

you were a child, having hope that a better day will come, that some big

thing will happen that will make everything right, set the course on

track. "

The Mega Millions jackpot soared to $586 million on

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 wins 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 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 zeroes, 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 overact to

one dimension and underreact to the other."

They also cling to a more romantic notion: Amazing things happen to others, so why not for me?

"When people are desperately sick, there's always a

part of the brain that thinks there will be a miracle cure,"

Loewenstein says. "If you want something to be true, your brain is

awfully good at figuring out reasons, magical ones, that there's a good

likelihood that it is true. The desire to win does drive a certain kind

of frenzied optimism."

That frenzy can grow during the holiday season,

when financial hardships become more glaring and people feel pressure to

spend money they don't have to demonstrate their love. "If you have

plenty of money in the bank, you're not likely to feel the need to buy a

lottery ticket," Goldbart explains. "But if there's something missing

financially and emotionally and you're thinking, 'I can't get a raise or

I'm not likely to get another job,' you buy a ticket as a psychological

compensation plan."

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.'"

Kathy Malzewski, a 67-year-old retiree from

Milwaukee, never buys Mega Million tickets. But while she was in a

grocery store Monday, buying scratch-off tickets as stocking stuffers,

she decided on a whim to buy a single ticket because of the enormous

jackpot.

What would she do if she won?

"I'd go into a nice retirement community myself,

but I'd be generous," she said softly. "I'd help Habitat for Humanity,

help the homeless, give a lot to charity."

Malzewski also said she'd travel around the United

States. She saw the ocean for the first time in May and recently visited

the Grand Canyon. She'd like to go to New York or Florida's Everglades

as well.

"Why not?" she said with a smile. "There are so many places to see."

She'll know Tuesday night if she has an instant way to finance those dreams.

"I'm not lucky. I never win anything," she says. "But I might today. A person always has a little hope."

Copyright 2013 The

Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be

published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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