How coin tosses can lead to better decisions

This post is adapted from my BBC Futures Article of the same title originally published on 19/08/23

If you’re anything like me then you might experience mild analysis paralysis when choosing what to order from an extensive menu. I am so indecisive that the waiter often has to come back a few minutes after taking everyone else’s order to finally hear mine. Many of the choices seem good, but by trying to ensure I select the absolute best, I run the risk of missing out altogether.

Even before the internet brought unprecedented consumer options directly into our homes and the phones in the palms of our hands, choice had long been seen as the driving force of capitalism. The ability of consumers to choose between competing providers of products and services dictates which businesses thrive and which bite the dust – or so goes the long-held belief. The competitive environment engendered by consumers’ free choice supposedly drives innovation and efficiency, delivering a better overall consumer experience.

However, more recent theorists have suggested that increased choice can induce a range of anxieties in consumers – from the fear of missing out (Fomo) on a better opportunity, to loss of presence in a chosen activity (thinking “why am I doing this when I could have been doing something else?”) and regret from choosing poorly. The raised expectations presented by a broad range of choices can lead some consumers to feel that no experience is truly satisfactory and others to experience analysis paralysis. That more options provide an inferior consumer experience and make potential customers less likely to complete a purchase is a hypothesis known as the “paradox of choice“. Indeed, experiments on consumer behaviour have suggested that excessive choice can leave consumers feeling ill-informed and indecisive when making a purchasing decision.

The best is the enemy of the good

The idea, particularly in subjective matters, that there is a perfect solution to a problem is known as the “Nirvana fallacy”. In reality, there may be no solution that lives up to our idealised preconceptions. When we step back a little from the decision we are trying to make, it usually becomes clear that, although there may be one best option, there will also be several good options with which we would be satisfied. Choosing an alternative that may not be the very best, but is at least good enough, has been christened “satisficing” – a portmanteau of “satisfying” and “suffice”. As the Italian proverb that the French writer and philosopher Voltaire recorded in his Dictionnaire philosophique goes: “Il meglio è l’inimico del bene” – “the best is the enemy of the good.”

Fortunately, as I detail in my new book – How to Expect the Unexpected – randomness offers us a simple way to overcome choice-induced analysis paralysis. When faced with a multitude of choices, many of which you would be happy to accept, flipping a coin or letting a dice decide for you may be the better option. Sometimes making a quick good choice is better than making a slow perfect one, or indeed being paralysed into complete indecision.

When struggling to choose between multiple options, having a decision seemingly made for you by an external randomising agent can help you to focus in on your true preference. This “randomised” strategy can help us to envisage the consequences of what was, up until that point, an apparently abstract decision. Recent experiments by a team of researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland, have demonstrated that a randomly dictated decision prompt can help us to deal with the information overload that often precipitates analysis paralysis.

After reading some basic background information, three groups of participants were asked to make a preliminary decision about whether to fire or re-hire a hypothetical store manager. After forming an initial opinion, two of the three groups were told that, because these decisions can be hard to make, they would be assisted by a single computer-generated coin flip. The side the coin came down on would suggest whether to stick with their original decision (group 1) or to renege (group 2). Participants were told that they could ignore the coin flip outcome if they wanted to. All three groups were then asked if they would like more information (an indicator of analysis paralysis) or whether they were happy to make their decision based on what they already knew. Once those who asked for more information had received it, all participants were asked for their final decision.

The participants who were subjected to a coin flip were three times more likely to be satisfied with their original decision – not asking for more information – than those who had not been exposed to the randomised suggestion. The random influence of the coin had helped them to make up their minds without the need for more time-consuming research.

Interestingly, requests for further information were lower when the coin suggested the opposite of the participant’s original decision than when it confirmed the participant’s first thoughts. Being forced to contemplate the opposite standpoint made participants more certain of their original choice than when the coin flip simply reinforced their first decision.

While many of us would feel uncomfortable allowing a coin to dictate the direction of someone else’s career, it’s important to remember that you are not required to follow the decision of the randomiser blindly. The externally suggested choice is designed to put you in the position of having to seriously contemplate accepting the specified option, but doesn’t force your hand one way or the other.  

For those of us who struggle to make decisions, however, it’s comforting to know that when grappling with a selection, we can get out a coin and allow it to help. Even if we resolve to reject the coin’s prescription, being forced to see both sides of the argument can often kickstart or accelerate our decision-making process.