What If Your Future Had Been Decided By Someone Else’s Coin Toss?

From a reader we’ll call O.X.H.:

I listened to your podcast on letting a coin decide your future – and wanted to make my own, small contribution to your piece. I am an attending physician now – but back when I was in medical school (early 2000s), I helped out with the admissions process by interviewing prospective candidates. On one day of interviews, my faculty colleague and I conducted six interviews – and by the end of the day, our job was to rank each of the candidates that we had interviewed. We independently agreed on No. 1 and No. 2 (and No. 5 and No. 6), but neither of us could decide between No. 3 and No. 4. He asked me how we should resolve this – and I (jokingly) suggested that we should flip a coin. Ironically, he loved the idea – and pulled out a coin, and then we assigned each candidate to heads/tails. We said that whoever won the coin toss would get 3rd. (Interestingly, we flipped the coin only once – not two out of three.)

So what happened? The candidate who won the toss finished 3rd – and was part of the incoming first-year class in the fall. The candidate who finished 4th didn’t get in, but may have gotten into a med school elsewhere (there’s no way for me to know). And so, while a coin toss didn’t decide my future – it certainly did decide someone else’s — in a big way. I lost track of what happened to the 3rd place candidate after I graduated medical school – but it’s a story that I thought you would certainly enjoy.

If you were candidate No. 4 and somehow found out about this, how would you feel? Was their decision “fair”? If no, was it less fair than what happens every day in many situations, but without the benefit of any coins being flipped?

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  1. John MacIntyre says:

    I don’t know if it’s fair or not, but it is a reality. More than anything, it illustrates the importance of not being ‘border line’ and getting as far ahead of the pack as you can, so this doesn’t happen to you … or at least not as much.

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  2. Michael says:

    If I found out that had happened to me, that I’d not been hired or admitted to a program because of a coin toss, I’d be very unhappy for some time. To have a chance and miss because of luck, that strikes me as being more depressing than simply not being skilled enough to get chosen at all.

    Was it fair? Certainly. It would be unfair if someone less skilled/experienced/pleasant/etc got it ahead of me because of chance, but if the people who got the job/position were all better or at least equal to me, then there is no injustice. I cannot complain that I was wronged in some way. I might complain that their admission process is a bit capricious, though, but without any moral force behind the argument.

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  3. Justme says:

    Fair if it was a fair coin 😉

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  4. Doug Evans says:

    Great Question… As I listened to the podcast, I wondered whether the Coin Toss is appropriate for business – due to the nature of the people and communities affected by the outcome: http://successfulworkplace.com/2013/02/01/tough-decision-flip-a-coin/

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  5. Chris says:

    Totally not fair! While a coin flip is fine for breaking a tie on what restuarant to visit, in this case with an important, maybe life altering decision, I suggest another round with the cndidates in question. This would allow the panel to probe for additional information, hopefully allowing them to come to a deliberate decision. Otherwise why not use “rock, paper, scissors,” for a clear winner.

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    • Philo Pharynx says:

      While this might be the best solution in a perfect world, in many cases the scale of the project causes difficulties to get more information and meet the deadline. It also adds a new level of unfairness to the equation. Perhaps when given another round, the 5th or 6th place candidates might have proven superior.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      It surprises me how convinced everyone is that the coin toss was the sole reason why #4 was not admitted. It might well be that #4 wouldn’t have been admitted even if he had won the coin toss. Interview rankings are not the sole factor in admissions.

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      • anon says:

        This comment illustrates the difference between distributive justice (evaluate fairness based solely on the results, no matter how those results were achieved) vs procedural justice (evaluate fairness based on the procedure from which the results were obtained). The court system in the US places more emphasis on procedural justice, but processes such as school admissions seem much less defined (or maybe just more secretive).

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  6. Craig says:

    My mom used to work at a prestigious university that shall remain unnamed. She didn’t work in admissions, but her division was next to theirs. The would get a bunch of really good applications that they accepted and a bunch of really bad applications they rejected. But there was a mass in the middle that were mediocre and un-differentiable. So they threw them down the stairs. Whoever landed on the top half of the stairs got in and whoever landed on the bottom half of the stairs didn’t.

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  7. dan says:

    A similar event happened to one of my good friends during Snowpocalypse 2010. My friend comes from an observant Jewish family and was struggling somewhat to meet Jewish women on campus. Unbeknownst to my friend, two Jewish nurses who attended services at the Chabad house were having trouble meeting Jewish men and asked the Rabbi to set them up with two nice Jewish graduate students. The rabbi chose my good friend and another student, also a friend of mine, in our department.

    The four met for an evening of dinner and drinks without officially pairing off. Everyone parted cordially and agreed to do it again sometime.

    Snowpocalypse happened the next week, and several students in my department gathered for a party. After consuming a couple of beers, the topic of our friends’ “double date” came up, and both expressed their interest in the dating the same woman. After discussing several ways to determine who would ask her out (snow olympics, eating contest, etc.) the group settled on a coin toss (as economics students it seemed only natural).

    My good friend won the coin toss and asked out the woman that weekend. They are set to wed this memorial day. Unlike the subject of this blog post, I know how my other friend has fared. He has been in a happy relationship with a Jewish graduate student in a different department (not the other nurse) for almost two years.

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  8. Tim Sielaff says:

    As a former medical school admissions committee member I have some insight into the process. I submit, after you’ve established a minimum level of academic credentials, you could pick the entire class through coin flips. We spent hundreds of hours pouring over applicants and congratulating ourselves on the great classes we selected. In reality, random choices out of the large pool of qualified applicants would likely yield equally excellent results.

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    • anon says:

      From your perspective as an admissions committee member, you are right that you would likely end up with a great entering class no matter what the coin flip showed.

      My perspective is that I spent my four years of medical school away from my fiance because I was a “middle of the pack” student who did not get into a school closer to home. These coin flips affect the applicants much more than they affect the school, and I hope administrators remember this when all else is equal. (We are happily married now, but I would have been upset if my four years of misery were the result of a coin flip.)

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      • Tim Sielaff says:

        The Admissions Committe is not serving you as the applicant. They are serving the medical school and themselves.

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    • anon says:

      I am sorry I wasn’t clear in my other comment. I agreed with you that a coin toss in the original story would result in a great entering class no matter what. I did not forget that admissions committees exist to serve the school rather than the applicant. But OXH acknowledged that the school did not seem to care whether applicant 3 or 4 got the spot, so the committee was already serving the school as well as it could have.

      The question posed by Stephen Dubner was how candidate 4 would view this situation, and that was the perspective I offered. I was only hoping that if all else was equal, the committee with the power to change applicants’ lives will remember that they have this power and ponder it less facetiously.

      (It would have made more sense for me to post this as a reply to the last comment, but the website would not let me do that.)

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