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Why people bet on March Madness, even when they know they'll lose
May the odds be never in your favor. Here are some of the intriguing reasons that people enjoy sports wagers even when they know they won't win. - photo by Sam Turner
The odds of filling out a perfect March Madness bracket are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808.

Of course no one expects perfection but still, the game has enough chance involved that the odds of winning your office pool, especially in a winner-take-all situation, are slim.

Smart people know that in any game of chance, the odds are stacked against them. That's how Las Vegas casinos not only remain in business, but pull in $5 billion dollars of revenues every year.

From the point of view of card-carrying economists, gambling is profoundly irrational," says NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. "In most cases, its a game that youre designed to lose and yet millions of people do it.

In investigating this phenomenon, Vedantam found that people's reasons for betting go beyond just trying to make money. People also bet because it gives them a thrill and because it makes the activity they are betting on (like watching a basketball game) more enjoyable.

According to reasearch by Brad Humphreys at West Virginia University, bettors are significantly more likely to bet on NCAA games that are televised than those that aren't. The reason? Bettors want to have a greater stake in the game they're watching.

Having a wager on the outcome of a sporting event increases engagement with the game. This may also explain why having a March Madness pool in your office may increase participation by people who normally aren't interested in sports.

The betting encourages viewing; the viewing encourages betting," says NPR.

Still, you would think that losing March Madness brackets year after year would turn some bettors off to the whole idea.

Bizarrely, some research suggests the opposite is true. Losing can actually motivate bettors to keep on betting.

According to a study published in Neuron, a journal of neuroscience, near-misses can activate the same reward centers in the brain as wins, persuading gamblers to keep gambling.

Seeing your upset pick for March Madness make it all the way to the final four only to be shut down by a rival can be more upsetting than if the team was knocked out in the first round. But it's also more likely to make you play again next year.

In a seemingly backwards way, losing can actually invigorate and perpetuate gambling. So even though bettors have lost in the past, they bet again because it feels good to come close, and it makes the tournament more enjoyable.

In spite of gambling's potential to increase TV viewership, and therefore advertising dollars, the NCAA discourages betting of any kind on collegiate sports.

According to the NCAA, betting on games "has the potential to undermine the integrity of sports contests and jeopardizes the welfare of student-athletes."

In addition to the NCAA's ban, many people may not know that betting on the outcome of athletic contests is actually against the law.

Even in the private setting of a small pool at the office or among friends, betting violates the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which prohibits organizing a wagering scheme on any game where "professional or amateur athletes participate."

According to Forbes, even on a larger scale, NCAA brackets are hardly ever prosecuted, but it's still something to consider before putting your money down.

So what do you do if you want to place a legal bet on the outcome of this year's March Madness tournament? Go to Vegas.

Nevada is the only state where it's legal to bet on sporting events. They're not allowed to place bets on the outcome of the presidential election, however, so if you need a reason to stay awake through the coming debates, you may have to look elsewhere.
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