Don't Leave Your Decision to Chance, Flip a Coin

A coin toss can reduce our need for information when we are making a decision.

Posted Jun 29, 2019

Hal McDonald
Source: Hal McDonald

Have you ever found yourself paralyzed in the face of some important decision?  “Should I take this new job or stay where I am?”  “Should I buy this car or that car?”  “Should I go to the beach for Spring Break, or to the mountains?”  You’ve exhaustively researched your options, creating detailed spread sheets of pros and cons, and yet the more you analyze the decision facing you the less certain you are about which course of action to pursue.  You consult the opinion of a friend, but not wanting to be held responsible in case you don’t like the way it turns out, he or she replies noncommittally, “Why don’t you just flip a coin?”

“Very funny,” you protest, knowing that the decision before you is far too important to leave to chance. And yet, thinking of the time and energy you’ve wasted evaluating your options, you find your hand involuntarily drifting toward a quarter on the table.  A recent study from Switzerland suggests that before you fill in one more row on your pro/con spread sheet you should go ahead and give that coin a toss.

Researchers at the University of Basel conducted a series of experiments examining “how information need is influenced after making a preliminary decision between two oppositions and then receiving a suggestion from a random decision aid (a coin flip).”  Participants in the online experiments were presented with decision information, asked to make a preliminary decision, and then offered further information before making a final decision.  Between the preliminary and final decision, some of the participants watched a virtual coin toss in which heads represented one choice, and tails represented the other.  Told that a coin toss might be helpful to them in making their decision, but that their final decision was to be determined by their own preference, they saw a coin toss animation that was either the same result as their preliminary decision (coin-congruent) or the opposite result (coin-incongruent). Other participants were shown a rotating hourglass and told to wait while the next part of the study loaded.  Following this intermediate phase, all participants were asked whether or not they wanted further information before proceeding to their final decision.

In the first experiment, participants were presented with a hypothetical scenario in which they were required to decide whether or not to prolong the contract of a store manager based on information about his performance.  In the second experiment, participants were presented with pictures and descriptions of two non-branded backpacks and asked to decide which one they believed was more expensive.  In the third experiment—designed to assess response to a “real and consequential decision”—participants were asked to decide which of two medical charities should receive a monetary donation.

Throughout all of the experiments, a significant pattern emerged.  Participants who watched the coin toss were no more likely to change their preliminary decision than were those who did not watch it, indicating that the coin toss had little or no effect on the their final decision.  The two groups did, however, differ in the amount of additional information they requested between their preliminary and final decision.  The coin toss participants were significantly less likely than the others to request further information before making their final decision.  The coin toss did not influence the decision one way or the other, but it sped up the decision-making process by reducing the perceived need for further information before participants committed to one decision or the other.

Based on the results of this study, as well as prior research on the influence of random decision aids on decision-making, the researchers hypothesize that people faced with two or more choices very often have a “gut feeling” in favor of one of the available options long before they are willing to commit to it. The perceived need for more and more information before actually making a decision—a situation the researchers describe as “analysis paralysis”—is in many cases merely an attempt to delay the necessity of finally committing to one course of action over another.  Left to our own devices, we can put off a decision indefinitely, accumulating superfluous information that contributes nothing new to an understanding of the choices under consideration. Introducing a random decision aid such as a coin toss can bypass the perceived need for more information and thus speed up the decision-making process in a couple of ways.

One way is by making us aware of a preliminary decision we may have already made but are not consciously aware of.  When we see the result of the coin toss and react with either pleasure or disappointment, we realize that we actually did have a preference for one option over another whether we knew it or not.  Another related way that a random decision aid can shut down our perceived need for more information is by triggering “choice closure,” which is “a psychological process by which people perceive a decision to be final.”  The traditional association of a coin toss with a “straightforward and quick decision” (e.g. which football team will receive the first kick-off in a game) can signal that a decision is final, spurring us to go ahead and commit to our preferred choice without requiring further information.

Allowing an important decision such as a career move or a major purchase to be determined by random chance would be unquestionably foolish.  And while a coin toss is admittedly governed by chance, flipping a coin (or using some other random decision aid) can be an effective and entirely non-random means of bringing resolution to a decision over which we has been struggling.  Without compromising the integrity of the deliberation process, a well-timed coin toss can help us make the most of the information we already have at our disposal while preventing us from diving into rabbit holes in search of yet another piece of superfluous information to consider before committing ourselves to a final decision.

References

Douneva, Maria, et al. “Toss and Turn or Toss and Stop? A Coin Flip Reduces the Need for Information in Decision-Making.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 83, 2019, pp. 132–141., doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2019.04.003.

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