Sunday, August 14, 2016

Wondering whether to end a relationship? Toss a coin, seriously

What's the best thing to do when you are faced with one of those gut-wrenching decisions like whether to quit your job or have a baby or end a relationship?

When I was weighing up whether to leave the Treasury to work as a journalist a few decades back, my mother acted as if it was one of the most momentous decisions I would ever make. My father, who was more relaxed, said it would all be fine.

It turns out dad was right.

The perpetually curious Steven Levitt (best known as the author of Freakonomics) has just published an ingenious study titled Heads Or Tails: The Impact of a Coin Toss on Major Life Decisions and Subsequent Happiness.

Levitt was frustrated that most of the laboratory studies involved small decisions such as whether to take an inconsequential gamble.

So for months he set up his own high-stakes website:

His greeting read: Have a problem? We can help. Sometimes in life you face a major decision, and you just don't know what to do. In the end, whatever you choose will essentially be a flip of a coin. Help us by letting Freakonomics Experiments flip that coin for you.

If they went further they were invited to choose a question or write one of their own, take a survey which had buried in it a question about happiness ("How happy would you say you are on a scale of 1 to 10?") then get the machine to toss a virtual coin, and complete follow-up surveys two and six months later.

The most asked question was "Should I quit my job?" followed by "Should I break up?"

As unlikely as it seems, 3869 people used the website to guide them through those decisions. Another 415 asked whether to have a baby  and 22,511 used it in total.

Roughly 63 per cent of those who took part did what the coin said, more than the 50 per cent that would have been expected by chance.

After two and six months the people who had thrown their lot in with the coin were happier than those who had not and must have used some other means to make their decision. And it's not just that they said they were happier. They were also asked to nominate third parties who were asked about their happiness both before and after.

For the really important questions (those about jobs, relationships and babies) the difference in happiness was "especially large – around one full point on a 10 point scale".

Doing what the coin said seemed to really matter. Levitt thinks he knows why. The people who did changed more often than the people who did not. Left to our own devices we've an inbuilt bias against change. Yet more often than we realise it's the best thing we can do. Levitt's no counsellor (he leaves that to his machine) but his advice would be that it's often worthwhile taking a leap into the unknown – far more worthwhile than we think.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald