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Letting Tech Decide: The Virtual Coin Toss at FreakonomicsExperiments.com

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the two wild-n-crazy economists behind the decision-making/navel-gazing Freakonomics books and podcast, have started a digital coin toss website where users ask the Tech Fates solve their dilemmas and commit to participating in a long-term research trial: Freakonomicsexperiments.com

freakonomics coin

One Way. Or Another.

This ongoing study is attempting to determine if people are happier flipping a coin to decide which path to choose or if they’d be happier mulling and chosing a decision for themselves.

Common wisdom shows a coin flip can be a very helpful and fair(ish) method when a decision is looming, but not helpful in the way the Steves are thinking. It’s helpful because in the few seconds it takes to flip the coin, one’s natural preference comes through. The Steves are thinking that some decisions are just too tough to responsible for all on one’s own. A person might be happier in life if she is told what to do by an emotionless (which assumes impartiality) computer algorithm as opposed to taking the on the onus of the choice herself. If it goes well, the decision-adopter can take credit. If it goes unwell, she can blame the coin toss. The Steves are betting the coin toss will help people be happier in the long run.

I went over to the site, thinking I’d ask a career question, namely, whether to pretty much give up on writing, consulting and/or look for another job, or, to redouble (and more) my efforts to make this work-independently-at-home thing better.

I paused at the “warning screen” the FE site gives you. The Steves very much want you to commit to the decision afforded by the toss. A pop-up warns that your solid commitment to adhere to the results of the coin toss is the only way they can get good data for the burgeoning behavioral-economics canon. It’s an “Are you sure?” page. I wasn’t sure. So I didn’t flip the coin. I opted to turn back not because I think I am the master of my own destiny. I am not, not by any means. My destiny is tied up with several others’ destiny.

Religious people give over their turns at the decision-making table to a higher power. Tech is my higher power; One would think I’d fully participate in the digital coin toss. At the end of the day, though, I’m the type of person who would rather have control over my career moves. I’d like to exert agency in areas where I can. I’m not the type to leave an important choice up to a coin toss, especially one put up by two untrustworthy economists (<-is that redundant?).


Which Hedge Fun(d) to choose?

The Steves don’t go through the steps of Informed Consent at the site. “Informed Consent” is a process where a subject experiment agrees to the terms and conditions of the experiment. Informed Consent does not require that the study’s entire hypothesis be revealed at the start because the transparency may taint the results; participants are supposed to be “debriefed” at the end of their participation in the research trial. Offices called “Internal Review Boards” at research institutions ensure that each lab is following Informed Consent practices to the letter. I was once hired as a liaison to a university’s Internal Review Board (IRB) to help reinstate the lab’s good standing and ability to conduct human trials, because the lab had previously run afoul and was banned for not following correct procedures. Human participants in experiments need protections. It’s all quite a serious business.

Perhaps my background as a researcher precludes me from taking freakonomicsexperiments.com at face value. I either overthink it or underthink it. I’m not sure what it would take to convince me to participate, given my reservations. My guess is most of the 18,000+ people who have reportedly already flipped a coin aren’t going to take the research so seriously. They didn’t sign a piece of paper committing to the trial. They weren’t put through Informed Consent processes (which add weight to the seriousness of the research). The site looks like a fun web-based game, not a safe trustworthy human research trial. (We could talk at length about data gathering via surveys and how participants and experimenters are excused from Informed Consent in those cases, and how The Steves may be categorizing the FE site as a “survey” site, but I’ll table the research design debate for another post. Internet-based experiments are worth trying, despite the lack of an IRB or Informed Consent. The Steves will collect data. Whether or not the data will be more trustworthy than its collectors is yet to be seen.)


Have you ever decided something big, like which car to buy or your college major, with a coin toss? Will you try Freakonomicsexperiments for your next big choice? After all, it’s all in the name of science.


Photo credit: SkittleDog on Flickr.

More reading on this subject:
The Utility of the Coin Flip?
Of Black Swans and Tossed Coins: Is the Description-Experience Gap 
in Risky Choice Limited to Rare Events?: