Decision-making by flipping a coin

Posted by – 20/11/2012

Yesterday I was discussing in an online board how to break a decision deadlock in life. There are real deadlocks, but I don’t think they are very frequent… most of the time, doing a pros and cons analysis is enough to decide what to do. Sometimes our judgement is impaired by lack of objectivity or by our inability to see things from a different point of view (it’s hard to think straight when everything seems to be falling apart around you); talking to a friend or relative can help in these situations.

But there are times when nothing helps. When you are really stuck and nothing seems to break the deadlock. At these times I give it one or two days, sleep on the issue and if I cannot come up with a decision I assume the alternatives are equivalent to me and just flip a coin.

Of course, this will do if you can postpone the decision, giving yourself (and your inner self) time to decide on a course-of-action. But is there some way to speed up the process? During the discussion, someone came up with a rather smart quote by Rothstein character in Boardwalk Empire TV series:

Flip a coin. When it’s in the air, you’ll know what side you’re hoping for.

I found it an interesting way to give your inner self an ultimatum: decide or luck will decide instead. I’ve never did it like that, for I would not flip a coin unless it’s my last resort. Being such a clever psychological idea, I doubted it originated in the TV series itself, so I went on pursue of the original idea. I found a Danish poet and mathematician called Piet Hein, who wrote a poem about it circa 1969:

A PSYCHOLOGICAL TIP

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.

And also, there are a Donald Duck comic called “Flip Decision” circa 1953 that introduces Flipism philosophy, which supports a rather radical anecdotal variant: make all decisions by flipping a coin.

Piet Hein or Rothstein character idea is much better than Flipism, of course. Does anyone knows any older sources of the same idea?

9 Comments on Decision-making by flipping a coin

  1. Ted Kotz says:

    I stumbled upon this in the search for the answer to the eternal question “what to eat?”

    I found while standing in the cafeteria, I would try to determine what to eat doing complicated analysis. When I couldn’t decide I would flip a coin. one time I flipped the coin and I was unhappy with the outcome. I instantly knew what I should have for lunch. I now use this for all unimportant decisions. I get down to the two best choices then flip a coin and see how I feel about the outcome. I do think I have a slight favor for going against the coin as if I’m rebelling against the coin telling me what to do. Then I’m sure that selection bias pushes it home the rest of the way. The post flip decision analysis could probably be an entire field of psychology on its own.

    • spectra says:

      The post flip decision analysis could probably be an entire field of psychology on its own.

      True. Evaluating how you feel after the coin decides might have a whole lot of hidden psychological stuff in it.

  2. spectra says:

    @Daniel,

    The sole power of the technique lies in it being totally final, which is to bring out one’s true desire. Could be dangerous, unless the options in themselves stay mostly harmless.

    Sure it’s dangerous, but not more dangerous than any other thing. If the alternatives are truly equivalent to you, and after giving it a fair bit of thinking and evaluating you’re still deadlocked, I don’t see how flipping a coin could be more dangerous. You’ll know what would have been the better alternative just post-factum anyway.

    Also, if you can postpone the decision and give yourself some time to think it through, it also allows to some new fact to emerge and either the problem will solve itself or you’ll have new data to work on. So, there are benefits on this approach. Unfortunately, there are decisions that cannot be postponed, so, Piet’s approach can be a way of dealing with these situations… as I wrote, a way to give your inner self an ultimatum.

    I cannot stop thinking that this resembles what Mlodinow suggests in The Drunkard’s Walk: “Don’t run for the train” (or was Taleb’s Black Swan?). I think I have to read those again.

  3. Daniel says:

    Ha, I chronologically fell on my own grip by writing a long text 🙂 . But it strengthens my hypothesis that The Dice Man would be the most famous example.

  4. Daniel says:

    Not older, but I would say that the (quite controversial) 1971 novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (pseudonym for George Cockcroft) is the most famous in the related subject. A dice is used instead of a coin, and it is rather closer to “flipism” since no margin for not following the dice’s decision is allowed, and all decisions are to be made by the dice (an interesting note is to reflect over the options the character actually makes possible by his own means).

    But if the philosophy is to let the coin decide unless a gut feeling is shown during the flip, then one cannot ignore the coin’s choice if one does not get the gut feeling. Doing so would make subsequent flips moot, since one from this point would know that its decision is not final, and thus can’t make the raw split second decision one desires. The sole power of the technique lies in it being totally final, which is to bring out one’s true desire. Could be dangerous, unless the options in themselves stay mostly harmless 🙂 . Read The Dice Man to see what might happen if the options are not that harmless.

  5. spectra says:

    Interesting. That is a 1971 novel I was not aware about. Sure to be entering my reading list soon. Thanks for the tip.

  6. anonymous says:

    It’s not older, but possibly the most worked-out-at-length-in-fiction treatment of this is “The Dice Man” by Luke Rhinehart.

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