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University of Basel

How tossing coins can help.

Text: David Herrmann

When faced with a difficult decision, flipping a coin can make things easier. You’re under no obligation to do as it says, but it could trigger feelings and thought processes.

Making decisions is tough. This young lawyer would agree: After graduating, he had two attractive job offers on the table. One was in a big law firm with a good salary and career prospects, but long hours and lots of overtime. The other was from a smaller law firm. The salary and career prospects weren’t as rosy, but the working hours promised a great deal of flexibility. So what was he to do? He weighed up the arguments, wrote lists of pros and cons, but still couldn’t make up his mind. Then he tossed a coin, which told him to go for the big law firm. Yet he didn’t feel comfortable with the idea at all, so he decided to take the other job.

The lawyer was at the beginning of a research project at the University of Basel. A group of social psychologists at the university – Mariela Jaffé, Leonie Reutner, Maria Douneva and Rainer Greifeneder – had been observing for some time in their private lives that many people find it very hard to make decisions. “I faced a similar choice before starting my doctorate in Basel: Should I stay in business consulting or go into academia?,” says Jaffé. She decided to join the team led by Professor Rainer Greifeneder at the Faculty of Psychology. As part of a project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, she and her colleagues hope to find out why tossing a coin can help us make decisions.

An appetizing five-course meal

The starting point for their work was a number of studies in which the participants were allowed to put together a five-course meal. The dishes on offer were all very tasty, which made the choice harder. Before each decision, the participants flipped a coin and were asked to view the result as just a decision-making aide rather than a strict instruction. This type of coin toss is therefore different to the ones used in sport – for instance, to choose a goal in soccer. There, the result is binding. The study found that a coin toss really does help people make deciions. A second study, this time using a dice instead of a coin, reached the same conclusion.

Jaffé says the coins and dice function as catalysts that make it easier to choose: “With the coin, you commit to one of the options, which then becomes concrete and therefore tangible. That in turn triggers feelings: Do I agree with the choice or not? How do I respond to the outcome?” The survey also showed that the participants, precisely as specified the study design, didn’t always stick with the result of the coin toss. If they weren’t happy with the outcome, the participants were free to choose a different option – just like the young lawyer, whose coin showed him what he didn’t want to do.

Intuition suddenly becomes visible

An act as simple and unremarkable as tossing a coin can genuinely release us from the anguish of making decisions. By establishing this, the work of the Basel research group has filled a gap: Previous studies focused on the coin toss in soccer, where it acts as the decision-maker. The findings that show how a coin toss can act as a catalyst, however, are new. Flipping a coin can help make our intuition visible and connect us with our gut instinct.

“Now we’re interested in whether acceptance of the coin toss varies across different decision-making styles, which in humans can range from rational to intuitive,” says Jaffé. Initial results show that people who tend to rely on their intuition can deal better with the idea of tossing a coin. They can then make their own decision based on how they feel about what the coin says. “However, it appears that flipping a coin is not the preferred decision-making strategy among more deliberate decision-makers,” says Jaffé.

Things become tricky, however, if a person rejects the result of the coin toss and makes a different decision which then turns out to have been a mistake. “Some people feel that a person who reached a decision in this way is more responsible for the negative outcome,” explains Jaffé. Conversely, the coin can also assume a doubling function – when it corresponds to the person’s own decision. “The participants could feel validated in their opinion, while others see them as being more responsible for the outcome than if they had just let fate decide.”

Decisions also mean sacrifices

Flipping a coin can help us make decisions more easily in our private lives. Yet the psychologists also say that the findings could conceivably be transferred to the world of work. Corporate decision-makers could ease their burden by using a coin to test out decisions in difficult situations. However, the researchers say that the feelings and considerations that ultimately lead to the decision should be underpinned by facts. “People are unlikely to appreciate managers who say that their decision was based on a coin toss,” says Jaffé with a smile.

Every day, we make countless choices between different options. Every decision also means giving something up. The lawyer, for instance, gave up money and career prospects in favor of time and flexibility. Jaffé is planning a follow-up project that will investigate how the results differ when the participants know from the outset what they are forfeiting. Specifically, this involves her showing psychology students either a Snickers or a package of Smarties – both of which are very popular snacks. The coin toss makes a choice for the participants, but here again it serves as an aid and is not binding.

Jaffé expects this situation to trigger stronger forfeiting in response to the coin toss: “After all, the participants know exactly what they are giving up if they decide against the coin.” As yet, the question of whether the participants were ultimately happy with their choice has not been investigated. Perhaps the lawyer will change his mind and begin climbing the career ladder further down the line.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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