From The Washington Post:
A few years ago, economist Steve Levitt embarked on one of the strangest, and arguably most megalomaniacal, experiments in history.
The University of Chicago professor and “Freakonomics” author wondered if people were actually good at making choices for themselves. Laboratory studies have shown that humans suffer from numerous decision-making biases. We’re overconfident, we’re impatient, we overestimate our abilities. Our brains latch on to recent events and blow them out of proportion. But many of these experiments took place in contrived settings, where the stakes were small.
Levitt sought to go bigger. He wanted to meddle in people’s major life decisions. And he came up with an ingenious way to do it.
When confronted with a serious dilemma, some pray for divine guidance, some convene a jury of their friends and some just go with their gut. But in 2013, tens of thousands of people did something a little crazy. They logged onto Levitt’s website and flipped a virtual coin.
The deal was this: Everyone promised to obey whatever the coin told them to do.
Before tossing the coin, people filled out a survey registering the decision they faced, whether it was leaving a job, leaving a spouse, having a child – or proposing marriage. They left their contact information for researchers to follow up on them. They also left contact information for a close friend, so the researchers could independently verify the responses. This week, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a draft of Levitt’s paper, which details the fascinating outcome of the experiment.
Most of the dilemmas involved making a life change or sticking with the status quo. To move or not to move? To start a business or not? Depending on the outcome of the coin toss, participants were either encouraged to go ahead, or asked hold off for at least two months.
Two months later, Levitt checked in with people. Here came the first surprise: Some of them kept their word. They actually followed the advice …