Status quo coin flip

Status Quo Bias and the Coin Flip

I have had the same haircut forever (a simple, A-line bob if you really wanted to know). When I go to cut my hair, I think: “I’m going to do something different!” but then I go do the exact same thing. This is an example of status quo bias. We like things to be the same and any deviation from that point is considered a loss. What if I hate my hair? What if the guy who is running against the incumbent is going to be worse than that guy? What if I quit my job and regret it? It’s easier to stay the same. 

Flashback 12 years ago: I’m on a study abroad in London and the Vidal Sassoon Salon is offering free haircuts if you’re willing to get anything. YES! This is my chance to be crazy! I walk in. Every single person has crazy hair. My own guy has a tight Afro with ringlets hanging off of it like a disco ball. It was amazing. I wonder what I’ll get!

Making decisions is hard, especially when they lead to change. What if, for every decision, we used a basic coin flip?

  • Heads, I’ll go to the salon and get a crazy haircut.
  • Tails, I’ll stick to the a-line bob.

Simple, right? But what about big choices? 

  • Heads, I’ll quit my job.
  • Tails, I’ll stick it out.
  • Heads, I’ll move at least 500 miles away.
  • Tails, I’ll stay right here.

Would you actually be willing to let the coin decide for you?

Luckily, economist Steven Levitt (co-author of Freakonomics, Think Like a Freak, and When to Rob a Bank) ran an experiment testing this very thing. He set up an online quiz where participants decided what heads would mean and what tails would mean and then followed up to see if A) they actually followed the coin flip and B) how happy they were with the decision.

Over 20,000 coins were flipped. What did they discover?

  • The coin toss only influenced decisions made within the first two months of the coin toss; later changes were unrelated to the outcome of the toss.” LESSON: If you’re going to force yourself to make drastic changes, it’s better to do it now rather than later. You might chicken out!
  • [T]hose who report making a change in follow-up surveys are substantially happier than those who do not make a change. This is true for virtually every question asked both two months and six months later. This correlation does not, of course, necessarily imply causality. Those who make a change differ from those who do not make a change on many dimensions.” LESSON: We think we’ll be happier maintaining the status quo, but change makes us happier!
  • [W]hen it comes to “important” decisions (e.g. job quitting, separating from your husband or wife), making a change appears to be not only correlated with increased self-reported happiness, but also causally related, especially six months after the coin toss. Those who were instructed by the coin toss to make a change were both more likely to make the change (as noted above) and, on average, report greater happiness on the follow-up surveys.” LESSON: Forcing ourselves to make big changes CAUSES self-reported happiness!

Now, there’s a caveat here. Let’s return back to my story in London:

My hairdresser washes my hair and then spends a solid five minutes examining it from all angles. Yes! He’s going to buzz the right side, and give me an edgy, uneven Mohawk! He picks up the scissors and declares: “Your head and hair are absolutely PERFECT for an A-line bob.” *deflate*

True story. I walked out of there with a free haircut and my usual A-line bob.* Was I disappointed? YES! This is the point:

The people that assigned that coin flip were ready for a change. They wanted an excuse to change so badly that they typed in: “Quit My Job” and flipped the coin. When the coin told them to NOT make the change, they were disappointed, just as I was when I didn’t get my crazy haircut!

So there is definitely bias in the sample, but the point is still good: Sometimes we think we’ll be happier staying where we are, when we’d really be happier taking the leap we’ve been thinking about.

You are the ideal candidate for a coin flip if:

  1. You immediately knew what you would type in for your coin flip.
  2. You’ve been thinking about it for awhile.
  3. You want an excuse to do it and the only thing holding you back is fear.

Ready? Go FLIP A COIN(You even get to choose which type of coin you want to flip!)

Better yet, if you fit all of the criteria listed above, JUST DO IT!


*I’ve used this as a declaration that I will forever have A-line bobs and Mr. T has gotten pretty good at them, despite hating the job of cutting my hair. 

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23 Comments

  1. Matt @ Optimize Your Life

    I have read in a few different places that you are much more likely to regret changes that you don’t make than changes that you do. If you make a change and don’t like it, then you have learned something. If you are curious about a change and don’t make it, then you’ll forever wonder.

    I have tried to make decisions based on this rule: if the options seem like a toss up after weighing everything, then pick the one that is a change over the status quo.

    • MaggieBanks

      That’s an excellent way to live your life! Well done. I can’t say I’m as good on this aspect. When the status quo is SO GOOD, I have to make sure I’m not just changing for the sake of change.

  2. This is fantastic! Quite honestly, I would be all for the coin flip because I am very prone to decision fatigue. I can gather all the information, advice, and anecdotes from people around me and it STILL leaves me confused. A coin flip for change (which leaves the decision to either A or B), would certainly allow me to create two clear paths and select one. It would feel like a complete outside force selects the way to go. I actually find it fascinating, too because I can be very comfortable with routine. But there have been times within a 6 month period that I have moved, changed jobs, completed a new goal I have never done before, and taken on a new hobby. Change keeps me curious, so maybe I should incorporate coin flipping some more. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      I, for one, LOVE change! And so I actually struggle with status quo bias because I think I want change too much. Sometimes I want change for the sake of change and maybe that’s not the best idea. 🙂

  3. Isn’t there a saying that goes something like this:

    Flipping the coin works when you are not sure because in that fleeting moment it is in the air, that is when you know what you want as an outcome.

    Or something like that. I think there is some truth in it to be honest. At least for me.

  4. Very interesting research and conclusions. I’m such a control freak, I’d definitely have to be ready for a change before I’d flip a coin over anything substantial. That story about your bob is sooo funny. I always laugh when I see someone with 80s bangs still, but you must have found the perfect style for you!

  5. Have you seen the Big Bang Theory episode about this? Sheldon uses dice. It’s FANTASTIC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yk8ixiKUEw My haircut strategy is to go about four inches shorter than it is now. So by the following year, it’s grown up. Same haircut, just different lengths! 😉

    • MaggieBanks

      Ha ha ha. That clip is awesome! That’s one show I always think is hilarious, but since it isn’t on Netflix, I haven’t binge-watched it. YET! 🙂

  6. There was recently an episode of the Dirtbag Diaries podcast where they used dice to choose their camping destination, and it sounded pretty great! Side note: I will definitely have at least a partial mohawk at some point in my life. Just like we have a FIRE travel list and a FIRE creative projects list, I also have a FIRE hair style list. Hahaha.

    • MaggieBanks

      Oooooh! I can’t wait to see all your FIRE hairstyles. I buzzed my hair when I got pregnant with my first. It did not. look. good.

  7. The Green Swan

    Steven Levitt is great and I am also a regular listener to his podcast. Interesting study he ran with the coin flip, I hadn’t heard of it before. The conclusions are always so interesting too, it makes sense that those looking for a reason to make a change would report more happiness afterward. Great post! Oh, and I’m sure the A-line bob looks great 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      The study just came out last week… I’m sure he’ll cover it at some point.

  8. For all the sad words of tongue and pen,
    The saddest are these,
    “It might have been.”
    –John Greenleaf Whittier

    I’m with Maggie. If you need a little push to break free of the status quo, flip that damn coin. And if it comes up on the side of the status quo, flip it again.

  9. This post makes me think of people who see “signs” that point them in a certain direction. They already want to go that way and ask the universe or God for a sign that it is the right decision. Perhaps someone or something is guiding them, or maybe they’re just seeing what they want to see.

    • MaggieBanks

      OH absolutely. I’m all for flow and signs and things working out the right way. And I’m all for seeing what I want to see as well. 🙂

    • Jacq

      My ex was waiting for a sign (perhaps that perfect single beam of sunlight ) that I was the one. He broke up with me saying “I don’t know if I want to marry you so we should break up. ” Talk about comfort level and fear of change on both our parts. I should have ended things 2 years earlier.

      I’m happier now. 🙂

      • MaggieBanks

        Yeesh! He should have flipped a coin so you could be done with him! Glad you’re in a better place. I’m so sorry!

  10. Well since most of my writing is about making decisions, I’ll chime in that I’d use a coin flip for things that are low cost and low energy decisions. But sorry folks, that’s about it for when that coin would be pulled out 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      Ha ha ha. I’m not sure I have the guts to do it for something major either!

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