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Researcher's advocate for tossing a coin to make a choice...

One of my current obsessions is learning how to learn better, and mostly I like applying this obsession to creating music. That interest led me to The Bullet Proof Musician podcast by Noa Kageyama, which in turn led me to an academic paper on the use of random coin tossing as a decision-making aid.

The researchers in this study were not proposing that we simply toss a coin in order to make a decision, although there has been research into that idea, and it is generally unpopular. We like to feel like we are in control and that we have choices. Americans are probably pathological in their obsession with demanding choices; that's a story for another day.

Many approaches to decision-making emphasize gathering information until you have determined which choice is the best. Certainly there is a place and time for gathering information and in many cases it may lead you to a decision that you feel clear about making. However, in many situations additional information gathering may not help, and can actually be detrimental to your overall process. For instance, there may be so much information available that you become unable to organize it in such a way that you can effectively use it to compare options. It may also be the case that there just is no more relevant information to gather. More information may also be detrimental when the time and effort to obtain more information outweighs the costs of any available choice.

Building on these ideas and analyzing the existing research on information gathering and how people eventually come to a decision, these researchers generated a question: could a random process (like tossing a coin) help people to stop gathering more information and solidify their choice? To investigate this question, they designed a clever series of studies. The basic paradigm was to present people with a scenario in which they are asked to make a preliminary decision between two options after receiving an initial amount of relevant information, a decision that they were not bound to; and then, to toss a coin (virtually through an app) in which the outcome of the toss either suggested they stick with their preliminary decision or that they choose the alternative option. At this point, they could opt to receive more information, stick with their original choice, or switch to the alternative option.

Like all research, this study generates more questions than answers. There are many aspects of the design(s) that lead to questions that require further research. However, it is fair to say that the study produced evidence that people subjected to the coin toss were more likely submit a final answer than to gather more information. What I particularly like about the work reported in this paper is the conclusions generated by the authors. They proposed that the coin toss caused the participants to pause and reflect on how comfortable they were with their preliminary choice and that the pause led to the act of committing to a decision even though they knew they had the option getting more information. Interestingly, whether the coin toss indicated they should stick with their preliminary choice or switch to the other option had no bearing on whether they did or not. In other words, people did not feel bound to go with the coin, they opposed the coin as often as they went with it.

What is the take home message here, my take home message? Information gathering is a cognitive aspect of decision making that may divert our attention away from our emotions and intuition telling us that we're ready to decide. Thus, when faced with a difficult decision in which you feel you may be getting saturated with information, consider pausing and making a preliminary decision. Toss a coin to see if you should stick with that decision or not. Then just turn your attention to your feelings and intuition about how that coin toss makes you feel. Satisfied, calm, confident? Perhaps you are ready to move forward. Unsure, scared, anxious? Consider switching your option and see what you feel. Still anxious? Maybe more information is in order, or perhaps other types of decision making aids are in order. Thus, we aren't using a coin to tell us what to do, we're using it as a way to pass and thus access other aspects of knowing, which can lead to a holistic decision-making process.

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