Major Life Decisions: How Much Influence Does a Coin Toss Have?

Steven Levitt, a well-known economist of “Freakonomics” fame, has a new paper on a topic that we can all relate to: How do people make big, pivotal life decisions? And how can we evaluate whether we make good ones?

When I stop and think about it, the relative scarcity of a robust literature on this topic is surprising. What could be a more pressing or pertinent subject? But — among other difficulties — it is incredibly difficult to create a controlled environment with the kind of randomization that you need for rock-solid results.

Let me explain. To try and measure whether some small behavior makes people happier, researchers could simply randomly assign participants into “Group 1” and “Group 2” and impose different conditions on each. This ensures that people with preexisting differences aren’t self-selecting into different groups and polluting the direct causal link that you’re trying to measure.

This approach — create a controlled environment, randomly divide your participants into “treatment” and “control” groups, and then measure how they fare — works great for studying things like new medications. But not so much for studying major life decisions: whether to get married, what kind of person to marry, and whether to move across the country for a new job. It turns out people aren’t willing to surrender those decisions to a social scientist in the name of advancing science. Weird, I know.

That’s where this study gets creative. Levitt did the best he could to “randomize” decisions by looking at the impact of a coin toss on people’s likelihood of making certain decisions. First, he recruited more than 10,000 volunteers. Each one took a survey that asked about a big decision they were facing. Then came the interesting part: Levitt’s website presented participants with a coin flip that “told” them which choice to make. After the experiment, Levitt followed up with the recruits to see what they decided and how happy they were.

Obviously, participants weren’t bound to follow through and obey the virtual coin. So the first question the study examined was: How much does a virtual coin flip impact which choice people end up making? And as funny as it seems, it turned out that the coin flip influenced participants’ decision making a lot. Taking account of a range of other factors, Levitt finds participants who got heads were about 25 percent more likely to make the change they were considering. And these weren’t insignificant decisions. Some of the changes the participants were mulling included quitting their job or separating from their spouse.

Equally interesting, the people who went ahead and made the change they were considering usually wound up happier as a result. Among the participants who were considering “important” decisions, those who decided to make a change later reported being a full point happier (on a 1–10 scale) than those who stuck with the status quo. Maybe there’s a lesson here: If you find a potential decision sufficiently compelling that you can’t get it off your mind, you should probably just pull the trigger. (Check out my Valentine’s Day column from 2015, “Taking Risks in Love,” for one practical application of this principle.)

The potential lesson here is intriguing. The results suggest that people leave a chunk of potential happiness untapped simply by tethering themselves to the status quo. Even a randomized virtual signal from a stranger in academia was enough to give people a little momentum and push them toward improving their lives.

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