Heads or tails? How a coin toss can make life easier

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Flipping a coin to make a decision is more likely to lead to choosing a new path—and make you happier in the long run.

Should I get up, or should I stay in bed? As soon as we wake up, we must make decisions and face the consequences. Because if you stay in bed any longer, you’re too late. But it doesn’t always stop at small decisions. Sometimes, we have to face big changes. Quitting your job, leaving your partner, or moving to another country. These are not easy decisions to make overnight. Or are they?

A recent study by economist Steven Levitt from the University of Chicago suggests that less hesitant, courageous decision-makers are more satisfied with their decisions than those who weigh things up for a long time and then opt for the supposedly safe path. For the study published in the journal “The Review of Economic Studies,” Levitt set up a website on which people who were faced with important life decisions and stuck could flip a virtual coin.

Heads stood for changing your life. Tails represented the concept of staying the same. Participants could fill out a form and toss a coin for all kinds of questions: whether to have a child, start a business, get a tattoo, or go on a diet. Around 20,000 people took part in the survey.

When Levitt and his team contacted the participants again after two and six months, they found that those who had made major changes in their lives as a result of the random coin toss were significantly happier than those who had made no changes.

Leave your partner? A new tattoo?
Proof of Levitt’s theory is 28-year-old Melissa. To emigrate or not? A question that has occupied her for a long time. Should she join her boyfriend in a foreign country and start from scratch? “I was scared. I didn’t know what I would do if it didn’t work out,” she says today. Melissa was faced with possibly the biggest decision of her life. After several conversations, she paused: “I left everything behind for love.” Melissa spoke to her relatives and friends about the decision and drew up a list of pros and cons. But not everyone does it this way. Levitt’s study suggests that quite a few people are happy to leave their decisions in someone else’s hands or leave them to the chance of a coin toss.

“There are various reasons for this. The main reason is the person’s lack of decision-making power,” says retired psychologist Sabine Schaffner. Many people want the freedom to choose so that they are not forced to do something and thus are less accountable for the consequences. “But as soon as you flip a coin, you hope for a certain result. “So the toss is merely an aid,” says Schaffner. Schaffner is also not surprised that, according to the study, those who are advised by the coin to leave the status quo should be happier in the long term. “The coin toss is just the final nudge to do what you’ve wanted for a long time,” she says.

Economist Steven Levitt interprets the study’s results as suggesting that people may be overly cautious when making life-changing decisions. And: “Society teaches us that winners never give up, and those who do give up never win. But the data from my study shows the opposite.” If you can’t decide, you should always choose what represents the biggest change. “This is a good rule of thumb for becoming happier,” writes Levitt.

Other studies also conclude that, in the long run, we are much more likely to regret things we didn’t do than things we tried and failed at. On average, humans seem likely to stick things out too long, ignoring our nagging dreams and restless instincts in favor of inertia and other people’s expectations. Heads or tails? Flipping a coin to make a decision is more likely to lead to choosing a new path—and make you happier in the long run.

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