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Renowned American writer and poet Sylvia Plath famously wrote in her novel The Bell Jar about a protagonist struggling with indecision regarding which paths she should take in life. That character, Esther Greenwood, at one point imagines all of her potential futures as a fig tree. Each branch and hanging fig on the tree represents a different path; a successful career, a loving family, world travels, a lifetime of fun romantic flings, doctorates, and degrees. But, Esther knew as soon as she picked one fig the others would wither away.
Esther sees herself sitting beside the tree starving, paralyzed by indecision. Eventually, all of the figs rot and fall off the tree.
Plath was obviously gifted with words and storytelling, and her fig tree analogy is one that virtually everyone can relate to. Indecision is an unavoidable rite of passage in these modern times we all find ourselves navigating. The average person has never been faced with more information, opportunities, and choices. The thing about decision making, though, is that if you wait too long to make up your mind the choice is usually made for you.
If you’re struggling with a big decision, a new study just released by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt is sure to catch your attention. A group of people made some big decisions based on nothing more than a coin flip. The idea sounds ridiculous, but follow up interviews with participants six months later found that individuals who were told by the coin flip to make a big change were more likely to stick to their choice, more satisfied with the decision, and happier than they were before in comparison to people whose coin toss told them to maintain the status quo.
All in all, these results suggest that people want more change in their lives, but most are very hesitant to take on the responsibility of making that choice. Using a coin to make the ultimate choice mitigates some of that responsibility. Imagine you hate your job in sales and want to quit, and start a small business. You may be very hesitant to make such a big change because it could be perceived as quitting or giving up by others.
“Society teaches us ‘quitters never win and winners never quit,’ but in reality, the data from my experiment suggests we would all be better off if we did more quitting,” comments Levitt.
Most modern behavioral-decision theories focus on the pros and cons that run through one’s mind as they make a big decision. These theories, though, don’t address people’s happiness in the wake of those decisions. Coming back to the prior example, staying in a soul-crushing sales job may be the way to go from a financial perspective, but it’s the wrong decision regarding happiness.
For his research, Levitt created a website that presented participants with a series of questions such as “Should I quit my job?”, “Should I move?”, or “Should I propose?”. Study subjects could also create their own questions (“Should I get a tattoo?”).
Yes or no responses to each question were then assigned to either the heads or tails sides of a coin (heads = yes, tails = no). Before actually flipping the deciding coin, each participant was asked to bring in a third-party to witness and verify the coin flip results. Then, after the coin had made the decisions, researchers followed up with both the coin flipper and their witness two months and six months afterward.
Interestingly, while two months later participants reported favoring the status quo and still second-guessing some of the changes they had made, by the six-month mark everyone’s attitude had changed considerably. After six months, those who had been “instructed” by the coin toss to make some major life changes were more likely to have actually made the change, reported feeling much happier, and even said they would make the decision all over again if they could turn back time. This was the case across virtually every decision.
There’s no way around it, major life decisions about careers, relationships, living arrangements, and everything in between is about as stressful as it gets. When faced with these decisions, it’s human nature to resist change and go with what’s most familiar. However, most people will tell you they’re happy about the big changes they’ve made in their life, despite how scary they initially seemed.
“A good rule of thumb in decision making is, whenever you cannot decide what you should do, choose the action that represents a change, rather than continuing the status quo,” Levitt concludes.
The full study can be found here, published in The Review of Economic Studies.
John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.