Staring down a major life decision, the uncertainty can be paralyzing. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to go about the decision-making. You can make a pros and cons list, consult friends and spiritual advisors, make insanely complex predictive models, or you could flip a coin.
Social psychologists and economists will tell you humans are notoriously terrible at predicting future happiness. Luckily for us humans, Dr. Steven Levitt at the National Bureau of Economic Research may have some answers to alleviate the tension:
In “Heads or Tails: The Impact of a Coin Toss on Major Life Decisions and Subsequent Happiness,“Levitt and team had over 22,500 people toss a coin to make a major life decision. And these were truly major life decisions. Some of the most common decisions the flip of a coin adjudicated included, “Should I quit my job?”, “Should I break up?”, “Should I have a child?”, “Should I get a tattoo?”, and “Where should I move to?” And then tracked which respondents made significant changes to lives in accordance to what the coin dictated.
Levitt found that the respondents who made a change in their lives were substantially happier two months and six months after the coin flip decision. That is, the individuals who were told by the coin to make a change are much more likely to be happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo.
Levitt concludes, “the results of this paper suggest the presence of a substantial bias against making changes when it comes to important life decisions, as evidenced by the fact that those who do make a change report being much better off six months later… If the results are correct, then admonitions such as ‘winners never quit and quitters never win,’ may actually be extremely poor advice.”
I worry this can sound kind of nihilistic. But I don’t think it’s really suggesting our feeble mortal minds are incapable of meaningfully directing us in our lives. It’s more a reminder that there’s no way to know where we’ll be in two months or six months. It’s not a question of having free will, but a question of exercising our free will enough. “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”