Would You Let a Coin Toss Decide Your Future? (Ep. 112)

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Would You Let a Coin Toss Decide Your Future?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript here; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

In it, Stephen Dubner grills Steve Levitt about a new project called Freakonomics Experiments. (Levitt blogged about it here and stopped by Marketplace last week.) The basic idea is to learn more about how people make decisions, especially when they’re on the margin. So: if you’re struggling with a decision, large or small, you can bring your question to FreakonomicsExperiments.com [DEFUNCT], where a random coin flip will help solve your dilemma. You also become part of the scientific experiment by taking follow-up surveys and letting the research team know how the decision turned out.

The idea originated from the flood of emails Dubner and Levitt received in response to our “Upside of Quitting” podcast. Many listeners said the show had emboldened them to quit something they no longer wanted to do. In this podcast, you’ll hear from two of those quitters: former racecar driver Daniel Herrington and ex-runner Serra Mentessi.

But other listeners wrote in with ongoing issues:

LEVITT: So many people said, “Hey should I quit this?” or “Should I do that?” And how would we know? I mean, we have no idea, we don’t know these people, we don’t know anything about them. There’s no way we could give an intelligent answer to that question, but it got me thinking. And really what’s the best we can do is we can give people who are having trouble deciding a framework for thinking about those decisions. And in certain circumstances, maybe we could do some experiments which would both help us and our research and also help the people.

Thus was born Freakonomics Experiments. Here’s what Levitt hopes to learn from the data:

LEVITT: What I hope to learn is whether or not there are any maybe big, systematic rules that we could tell people about decision-making. So for instance, it may just be the case that people rarely make the big changes, but the people who make the big changes are much happier in their lives after they make those changes. So there’s a status quo bias. So let’s just say over thousands of people making real-world big decisions we find that the changers, the ones who shake up the status quo, do better. Well if that’s true, then that’s a really important message, because what that means is whenever you’re on the margin, you should have a default rule, which is I go for the change. Okay, do I know that will happen? I have no idea. It could be just the opposite. It could be that we should never do any big changes, we’re always better off leaving things the way they are. We might learn that as well. But it’s the fact that I have no idea what the right answer is which gets me so interested in going out and for the first time trying to measure this and learn about it.

You’ll also hear about the study’s design, what kinds of questions you can’t ask the coin, and why this whole idea isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds.


Suicide is another event that you must report and can be held liable for if it is carried out and you had foreknowledge of the act (in the mental health field).


There is a glitch in the website it won't go to the survey.

Jaimes Beam

Have you heard about the decision-making process, where you can't make up your mind, so you
flip a coin, and depending on which way it goes, ask yourself how you feel about that way to go?
Do you instinctively feel good about that decision branch, or not?

Supposedly it gives your subconscious a vote in the decision... Unless you're the type who regets
*any* decision!!!!


I flipped the coin to choose between going out for an expensive dinner or building my bank account. I'm so confused! The coin toss and the subsequent email that was sent me indicates that I save my bank account but the email that was sent to my husband says I should go out for an expensive meal. Is THIS the social experiment??


What is sad about this experiment is that it excludes the other methods by which human beings as a social body make decisions. Levitt and his friends want to believe in a world where individuals make decisions alone, isolated using there unique and flawed rational process. This is a very new notion of how people make decisions. The great literatures of all different cultures- the books of the varied religions, the wise men and woman in our societies occupy an important social function which is guidance. This test is not about will full action vs random action- ultimately it is about a world in which we turn to outside to traditions and others with broader experience, or turn inward- alone.

Todd jones

Hi all I think in some ways a lot of good things have started with a single coin toss .I take my unions pension plan which started in 1969. With the owner of the company against the pension plan and the workers for it . So Workers rep and Employer decided in a coin flip and with luck or not the employees won that toss .I have to admit 43 years later and a billion Dallars in are pension fund I wonder if maybe a coin flip could help solve some of humanities problems.
Just my little bit of info

Matt S.

It's an interesting way to decide a decision and I might be the guy to try it some day or at some point in my life. But for people who aren't too sure of their "gut feeling" or just being able to decide, then I would recommend this method.

Scott Winterstein

Is the coin toss idea really making the choice and is it random? I think your assigning the 2 choices to heads or tails comes into play. You ask whats a better investment A or B? In a Coin toss you would assign A to heads and B to tails or maybe the opposite, so the choice of what you assign to the outcome side means in my opinion you don't really get a random result since assigning a side of the coin the 2 choices determines the outcome. Random would involve a random way to assign the choices without a need to choose the side each of the choices are assigned then the flip would be based on random outcome.


You guys have to love Chris Warren flipping a coin to decide where he is going to school.


This is a study about running in circles, trying to catch our tail, to me. For decisions cannot be made by others for you, as I see it. Unless you're choosing enslavement, be it to your boss, any bullying authority in your youth or the virtual world. Just some of many examples. The reason why those who dare to act on their own decision, whatever it may be and to whatever good or bad result, are feeling good about it and themselves, as I see it, is because they excersize creative power and show sovereignty in mind and body, by making manifest what they choose, in form. Accompanied by a good sense of humor and love for themselves. To me, that's what life is about and we're free to approach that as a human being loving a challenge or as a human being already defeated by judgement of oneself. The first are in a position to grow, through change and excersize, the latter are stuck in limbo, or in the freezer of their own "I can't help it, it's just who I am" the often practiced excuse of being "a creature of habit" which is an anchor and prison at the same time. I fyou get what I mean. Life is about change, to me, and that requires motion... decision making, be it in attitude or in matters of material forms. I like this kind of questioning and exploring, for it's part of being alive.