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Heads or Tails: The Impact of a Coin Toss on Major Life Decisions and Happiness [pdf] (gwern.net)
172 points by mannigfaltig on Mar 14, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 82 comments

My grandmother's family arrived at the docks in England in the early depression years, and flipped a coin. Heads, Australia; Tails, Canada.

I don't know how the coin affected their happiness with the decision they made. All I know is that two generations later, I'm sitting in -9C temperatures in mid-march because of "tails".

On the other hand, you're not fighting off vicious fauna and plus-size insects ;)

If they had gotten heads, you won't exist. :)

Given the butterfly effect, if they'd used a different coin and got tails, he wouldn't exist either.

I wonder how signicant the butterfly effect is in most cases. Most human systems are set up to allow a wide range of flexibility and still work - eg you can show up for a coffee meeting 1 minute late, and still finish on time and everything.

But he wouldn't know he doesn't exist.

His/her consciousness might exist inside a different person though.

No, I pretty definitely wouldn't exist. My father's family has been in Canada a lot longer, and I'm half him.

Ok but maybe your father or mother would've had a baby with someone else, and then you'd be that person.

I'm not even the same person as who i was yesterday.

Everytime my stream of consciousness stops and starts I am a new person built from the thousands of lives that came before.

This is not a saddening fact but an enlightening one. We all stand on the shoulders of those that came before us.

I thought we stood on their heads...

You are your 'current' feelings and your past memories. The reason for the downvotes is that from your logic mabbo is every person who has ever existed in the history of the human species. Since every person has their own current feelings and past memories, saying mabbo would have been that person instead is a little meaningless.

I don't understand how people can adopt this line of reasoning, can you explain? Do you think that there's a store of consciousnesses somewhere, and they're reserved/assigned?

They're actually unassigned, but you can pay $35 to reserve one. It's like Southwest Airlines.

What do you think a consciousness is?

Really got the tail-end of that deal......... i had to

I coin toss, but I don't let the outcome determine the action.

Instead I let how I feel about the outcome determine the action.

Most of the time a coin toss is not required as I am quite decisive, but if I feel particularly paralysed by an opportunity or decision, and unable to determine the best course of action... then I will toss a coin and look at the outcome, and decide whether or not I feel at peace with the outcome, whether there is regret.

I act on the immediate feeling of the outcome, not the outcome itself.

Not a coin toss, but I put my wife on a clock to make a decision before I hand the decision over to the five year old. After an hour of looking at wallpaper, it turns out she could come to a decision in 2 minutes when on the clock.

Someone (Piet Hein) wrote a poem about your strategy:


  Whenever you're called on to make up your mind,
  and you're hampered by not having any,
  the best way to solve the dilemma, you'll find,
  is simply by spinning a penny.
  No -- not so that chance shall decide the affair
  while you're passively standing there moping;
  but the moment the penny is up in the air,
  you suddenly know what you're hoping

Often you know exactly what you want to do, but that doesn't tell you what you ought to do.

Consider deciding whether or not you are going to have ice cream for dessert. On the pro side, ice cream is delicious. On the con side, you are trying to maintain your weight. When the coin goes up in the air of course you are going to be hoping it lands on ice cream, but so what?

Ice cream or not isn't a major life decision, or course, but it could easily stand in for deciding to leave you spouse and family to pursue a love affair, leave your steady job to try a start up, or overextend to buy your dream house. The very fact that you are considering it in the first place means that there is a part of you that very much wants to do it, the question is whether or not it is on the balance a good idea.

'Do what you hope the coin lands on' is like 'follow your dreams'. Good advice for some people, in some circumstances -- especially for young, uncommitted people with access to formal or informal safety nets -- but not for everyone in every circumstance.

This is a great technique that I also use. Sometimes it's hard to understand what you really want out of a binary choice. But as soon as you see what fate has decided for you, that gut reaction of elation or dread tells you what you should actually pursue.

Exactly. That's the value of the coin-toss: the fleeting moment the coin is spinning in the air can be an incredible forcing function for revealing your preferences.

I'm a fan of skipping the coin and just straight-up querying my felt sense instead. See also: Focusing by Eugene Gendlin

I make a matrix on a spreadsheet and give characteristics with different weights and then give values to those characteristics.

I'm not sure if this method is influenced more or less by subconscious bias but at least you can see your bias come to the surface in the categories and weights you assign.


This definitely works. I have some family members who are very indecisive and I take the same approach with them. Can't decide between Restaurant A or Restaurant B? We're going to Restaurant A. Do you feel disappointed or happy? Now you can choose a restaurant.

When I was a little boy, I used to do this with restaurant menus, choosing between items. I'd tell my parents one of the choices at 'random', and then if I felt disappointed, immediately change my mind.

I've read a few different books that say we make decisions from our gut or emotions--logic is only used to try and justify it to ourselves.

Yeap. There's some research that suggests the unconscious mind is better at making complex decisions then the conscious mind. [1][2]

"Thinking hard about a complex decision that rests on multiple factors appears to bamboozle the conscious mind so that people only consider a subset of information, which they weight inappropriately, resulting in an unsatisfactory choice. In contrast, the unconscious mind appears able to ponder over all the information and produce a decision that most people remain satisfied with" [1]

[1] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8732-sleeping-on-it-b... [2]http://people.hss.caltech.edu/~steve/rightchoice.pdf

It's also been strongly argued via FMRI research that our decisions are made before our conscious mind is aware of them.

Of course, FMRI machines have also diagnosed brain activity in a dead fish, so...

  The great majority of the recruitment for the study was done through social media associated with Freakonomics... in the recruiting for the study, I emphasized that I was only interested in people who were having a difficult time making a life decision... Finally, this is a group which is apparently attracted to the idea of using a coin toss to potentially resolve major life dilemmas.
Not that we should automatically dismiss the results, but that is a pretty important qualification.


  Empirical economists are increasingly moving from a role of consumers of data to producers of data. This paper represents an extreme expression of that trend. It is difficult to imagine how one could hope to answer the questions addressed in this paper without generating the data. As the prominence of social media grows, opportunities to recruit subject pools for randomized field experiments from broad swaths of the population will only increase.
As cool as that is, you've got to worry that if social scientists have the ability to conduct significant studies as a result of their popularity, we'll start to see a world where the most prolific social scientists are necessarily more and more like entertainers.

Levitt's been more entertainer than social scientist for a while now, and as for other social scientists wanting a broad section of candidates for field experiments, social media associated with the university or other third party, or even paid social has the same recruitment potential without the systematic biases of Freakonomics fans

When stuck on a decision, sometimes I use this trick: I flip a coin, and while it's in the air, I pay close attention to how I want it to land. The subconscious tends to show itself when I am tuned in at that moment. Then I just use that feeling as the decision and ignore the coin. No regrets so far!

Sopranos fan?

During a corporate training once, our tables were given the task of deciding which of a set of personas would receive a liver transplant based on some provided biographical data. The big reveal was undoubtedly to be how our biases informed our decision.

I convinced the rest of the participants that choosing was in fact immoral and the only fair way to decide who lived and died was a lottery.

The explanation that Alice the loose woman (really! old material I guess) was getting a new liver because she was lucky was not a well received.

I recently listened to a Radio Lab episode (Playing God) about triage. Researches offered a group of citizens options for how to allocate care. The three methods they were allowed to choose from were:

1. Try to save the most lives or years of life (younger or healthier patients).

2. Pick people who will be most helpful given the medical situation (doctors, first responders who will help save others).

3. Randomly via a lottery.

You can listen to folks struggle with the decision. Not much agreement:

http://www.radiolab.org/story/playing-god/ start listening around 35 minutes; I can't find a transcript.

Even if not random, there's an argument that Alice would bring happiness to more people.

I don't understand how it's 'more moral' to abdicate responsibility to the toss of a coin than to choose as best you can based on what you know. That seems like saying the 'moral' answer to a trolley problem is to run away from the lever so that whatever happens is 'not your fault'.

The trolley problem is an interesting frame.

For the sake of an unfamiliar reader, in the problem, we have a man standing by the buffers and an out of control trolley car. We're asked to choose between pulling a lever, which will divert the car to the buffers, thus killing the man but saving the people on board the car, or not pulling the lever, which results in the deaths of the trolley passengers but allows the man to live.

Choice one:

The out of control car is 'not your fault' but deliberately choosing to kill the man would be. You couldn't live with yourself knowing you'd been the cause of his death. You opt not to pull the lever.

Choice two:

That's crazy. None of this is your fault but it's your 'responsibility' to choose now. It's a simple utilitarian calculus - more lives = better. You pull the lever.

My problem with all this is that either response (and people split on the response) is nothing more than a reflection of the unconscious biases of the respondent. This is revealed when we discover that by changing the framing slightly - e.g. asking the question in another language (a different part of the brain is engaged = more utilitarians) or making the killing of the innocent man a direct act (you push him off an overpass = more 'not my faults') - changes the balance of responses in statistically significant ways.

The right answer, of course, is to toss a coin and do what it tells you.

I would run over the single man without hesitation or guilt. I believe that his fate led him to his unfortunate predicament.

In other threads, ppl talk about if there is a stream of consciousness that we come from. I believe it is a stream of fate. A person inherits luck from past actions, whether they be from this life, from their ancestry (grandparents choosing a country), and from previous lives (knowing - really knowing - something is the wrong thing - that moral inner voice or unreasonable fear of it).

Luck can be increased through right action or ritual. It can be passed on to your children and grandchildren.

This belief allows me to be fearless as I go about my daily activities as I know I am always improving my future lot.

I believe a lot of odd results that come out of hypotheticals lie with the fact that they're hypotheticals.

The trolley problem makes an inherent assumption that value can be summed by adding up people (i.e., more people > less people), and therefore there's only one truly correct answer, but that's not how decisions are actually made in the real world and there are very good reasons for that.

For instance: why is there a group of people and then the separate individual? Does the group have something in common? Is there something special about the individual? Someone made a judgment call when they created the situation. The end result is now unknown, and my answer would be that the decision therefore doesn't matter.

Choosing to do something would require performing another judgment call, which is actually very problematic. This is demonstrated fairly well by one of the reframings of the problem: the one where a surgeon kills a healthy person to save 5 dying patients. A world in which such things happen would be considered quite terrible by many, yes this seems to be a valid implementation of the trolley problem. The surgeon could then take his 5 patients and the one healthy person and recreate a trolley scenario and then let someone else deal with it. The correct answer, according to a person who doesn't want healthy travelers sacrificed for people who need organs, would be to not touch the lever. Yet, they do not have access to this information, so they do not know what the end result is. So the decision doesn't matter.

The responsibility is indeed with whoever has created the situation. Another party getting involved may make it better or worse by sheer luck but "more people > less people" is, in my opinion, a horrible philosophy and this implicit assumption should be thrown out of the problem. Once you do that, though, the problem disintegrates.

I would generally be wary of critique of intuition based on failure in hypotheticals. Intuition wasn't designed around hypotheticals and doesn't believe in them.

Everything both you and parent poster said boils down to "run away from the question because I don't like either of the answers." Which is a very human response, but you then throw the baby out with the bath water.

To be really useful, you need to consider these thought experiments in the least convenient world - assume that there is explicitly no way to avoid the central point (http://lesswrong.com/lw/2k/the_least_convenient_possible_wor... for further reading). So in this case, it doesn't matter 'whose fault' the predicament is. You don't know anything about the individuals involved except the number killed by each of two choices. "Optimise net lives saved" is indeed a horrible strategy, but under the least convenient possible circumstances can you come up with a better one?

Your comment on intuition failing on hypothetical scenarios is on the mark, and that's the point of this kind of scenario - to see in what way intuition fails, and how it will fail in different directions based on presentation (eg. we'll passively let 5 people die rather than actively killing one, but we'll save 5 people even if it involves indirectly killing one.)

Whenever you're called on to make up your mind,

and you're hampered by not having any,

the best way to solve the dilemma, you'll find,

is simply by spinning a penny.

No — not so that chance shall decide the affair

while you're passively standing there moping;

but the moment the penny is up in the air,

you suddenly know what you're hoping

-Piet Hein

Edit: HN is not friendly towards quoting poems.

When I was 18 I left most of my decisions to a coin toss for about a month. It lead to some seriously interesting antics like randomly ending up at squat parties miles from home on a Sunday.

The adult part of me wish I kept a record of what happened as I could have published some of the stories. But the 18 year old me who was willing to decide his life by a toss of a coin was hardly going to be the same 18 year old who was responsible enough to keep a record of his activities.

For what it's worth though, it was a pretty fun month.

I enjoy applying the I Ching[0] to decision making. It's like a coin toss, but on steroids

[0] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/534289.The_I_Ching_or_Bo...

[#] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Ching

I have used Tarot cards to give me some perspective on some descisions. As a side effect I start to experience a lot more of unexplainable synchronicities in my daily life and in connection with the decision. Most striking example: I was at a point where I needed to decide if I should break up with my girlfriend. I was doing the taro spread to get the answer and at the same time my girlfriend called and told me that she met this one guy and she would like to go on a date with him.

Being faithful to chance events is a great way to organise your knowledge - it basically subordinates facts to wit. Fight the facts! Become self-aware! That's how I think it works anyway.

Difficult to follow through with on the larger scale, though - which is where the little synchronicities come in.

Reminded me of "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick, where I Ching was the main plot-driving object.

How so? Pleases go into more detail.

Instead of a binary yes/no decision, the various positions of the i ching means you have a wider range of "oracular" output - 64 hexagrams to be exact.

Actually with the changing lines, it's more than that. You'll have one hexagram change into another, with the lines providing nuanced details to the "meaning".

Right, my bad. Thanks for the clarification

For a novelist's take on making life changing decisions based on chance, Luke Rhinehart's "The Dice Man" comes recommended.

I was going to mention that book. Pretty hilarious.

"No Country For Old Men" also comes to mind

the dice man is about one guy basing every life decision around coin tossing. Funny, bit dated, worth a read imo.

"Life is but a gamble! Let flipism chart your ramble!"


Stress. They say people will adapt to a "new normal" within 3-6 months of a major life change. I would argue that a person who is on the fence about a major life decision is maintaining a state of stress by not making the decision. Once they make the decision and commit to it, they will achieve the "new normal" in time, but will be freed from the stress of indecision. The relief of that stress should make them happier all by itself.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

It is worth remembering that Frost's point is that it actually doesn't make any difference.

I tend to think that interpretation has a better claim on the basis of its being grassy and wanting wear.

That is to say I think there's a nice irony in the fact that I often hear people espouse that (clearly correct) opinion with the implication it is a better interpretation but has fewer subscribers.

??? Is that what those lines mean?

See this article [1] for an explanation of how the poem is supposedly taught & understood incorrectly. I tend to agree with the claim.

The crux is in the 2 paragraphs starting with "Frost’s poem turns this expectation on its head", and the main claim is:

"According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance)."

[1] https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/09/11/the-most-misr...

Anyone ever come across Alain Badiou? And if so, what's his reputation like? All my small acquaintance with set theory etc has basically come second-hand from trying to read his book, and now I'm left with the probably unjustifiable impression that mathematical reasoning has to come to a crisis, and must admit arbitrariness as a kind of self-reflexive pivot.

As for why - I couldn't tell you, but it made sense at the time.

I read Badiou's Number and Numbers. The first half was a good introduction to the history of attempts to axiomatize various kinds of numbers. The second half was a so-so introduction to surreal numbers. The book seems like some notes that Badiou wrote for himself while studying mathematics. Not really sure where any of the reviewers and blurb-givers got the idea that the book had anything to do with philosophy or capitalism or politics.

Relevant and very entertaining read: The Dice Man

  Individuals who are told by the coin toss to make a change are much more likely to make a change and are happier six months later than those who were told by the  coin to maintain the status quo.
I wonder if they removed the coin and just split people into groups that maintain status quo and groups that always make the change if the results would be similar. Perhaps the urge people have to consider the change in the first place is a good indicator that it is a change they actually do want to commit to.

The theory is that a cohort whose uncertainty over a decision is so close to 50/50 that a coin toss has a large statistical effect on whether they make the change or not[1] ought to be close to 50/50 on whether it has a desirable outcome in the event they change (allowing for a degree of risk aversion, and making the fairly standard economic assumptions that humans primarily optimise for an analogue of [future] satisfaction, and their errors in predicting their future satisfaction are random rather than systematically skewed towards underestimating or overestimating their future outcome)

In practice, it's likely the choice of reported happiness over a six month followup period as the indicator of whether it worked is the major factor here; many negative aspects of a decision take much longer to take effect (get even more bored/frustrated with the new job, miss their ex despite the shortcomings in their relationship, realise that going back to school is costing a lot of money and not advancing them in any way)

It's possible that the larger fraction of people who are happy six months after making the change they agonised over is entirely cancelled out if you ask them after 24.

[1]the paper seems to suggest the coin had a statistically significant impact on the sample group's decision making even if their ex ante predictions of their probability of making the change were greater or less than 50%

The title reminds me of No Country For Old Men.


I look at it as follows: If you are really undecided about something, it really means that the two (or more) options are not discernible enough (given information you have), and so they are, from your perspective, very similar (they can lead to different outcomes but you do not know). So it kinda makes sense to decide it randomly.

Kinda relevant piece art: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosencrantz_and_Guildenstern_A...

I wonder how this study can be used as evidence against determinism, ie., that humans really do possess free will. If the coin toss relevantly affects the person's decision, then it seems like random chance plays a key role in affecting our experience, right?

My reasoning: to the extent I have free will, I can consciously choose to delegate it to an unrelated source of entropy, such as a coin toss. That happens all the time, in fact, without any conscious input from me at all. We're immersed in randomness. ("Wow, if I'd left 3 seconds earlier or driven 1 MPH faster or slower, I wouldn't have been T-boned at that intersection." How can free will coexist with a statement like that?)

This sort of thing happens frequently enough to dispel both (soft) determinism and free will as viable concepts, IMHO. We all live in a Gaussian game, where everything that occurs is the sum of an unknowable and indeed unimaginable number of factors. The sum of a vast number of of random numbers may still be deterministic, in the sense that it could be rederived from a perfect copy of the system's original state, but I'd argue that this insight cannot possibly be useful since there's no way to store or represent such a copy in any environment where the original "me" is able to manipulate it.

To the extent that a human is otherwise deterministic, a coin toss is too.

You have plenty of noise in the inputs that determine your actions by way of brain, even without coins, but it's still the state of your brain + those inputs that determine the next state of your brain and therefore your actions.

I have strong view that there is no such thing as free will.In close scrutiny any definition of free will falls apart.

Wittgenstien's view that most philosophical problems of dissolve by understanding that the question involved is nonsensical or not defined properly.

I think events

1. follow Cause -> Effect (Casual)

2. Or they Random (If we don't find evidence for a deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics)

There is no 3rd option. Some people try to derive free will from randomness, which means they are essentially saying that their "free will" is equivalent to blind selection without any regard for causes, which contradicts the normal common sense(nonsense?) use of the word.

I've made this argument to myself and I can't find fault with it, but it does really bother me. Can it be true that I have no control over my life? I find that hard to swallow at a gut level but can't explain how it might be otherwise.

I would like to point to this enlightening post on Zen and Free will - https://aeon.co/essays/do-i-have-free-will-in-zen-the-questi...

Also the insights of Alan Watts in the book 'The Way of Zen' and others on Free will and Determinism is eye opening.

I think one has to examine whether the feeling of a separate "I" who has to surf through tides of fate is real.

I think in meditation, or in moments of spontainety brought about anything that gets one in the "Flow" helps to fade the distinction of a observer and the observed ?

It's not that you have no "control", it's that there is no "you".

You are the set of reactions to external stimuli that a certain system goes through.

One can also say that "you" cannot be separated from the "external" system?

Alan Watts -

“It's like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spread. And in the middle, it's dense, isn't it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets get finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so we define ourselves as being only that. If you think that you are only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curlique, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space, and way out in time. Billions of years ago, you were a big bang, but now you're a complicated human being. And then we cut ourselves off, and don't feel that we're still the big bang. But you are. Depends how you define yourself. You are actually--if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning-- you're not something that's a result of the big bang. You're not something that is a sort of puppet on the end of the process. You are still the process. You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. When I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as--Mr so-and- so, Ms so-and-so, Mrs so-and-so--I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I'm that, too. But we've learned to define ourselves as separate from it. ”

"Random" chance is still probably deterministic.

Makes me think of the novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith...

I usually wait until I'm very tired, I sit in a couch and then ask myself "should I do X?". If I can get up it is a yes...

This is why I love academic economics.

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