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Freakonomics economist Steven Levitt asked people to flip coins to make big life decisions. Those who made a major change were happier.

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Regardless of how they made the decision, if they made the major change they tended to be happier.

Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist who co-authored the book Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything, says he’s long been fascinated by the social pressure against quitting, whether that means quitting a project, a job, or a marriage. “Behavioral biases tend to push the idea of not quitting, because you get the pain up front but the benefits down the road,” Levitt says.

So he was excited, he says, to do a “very different kind” of research project, one that infiltrates people’s everyday lives and examines what is most important to them.

Most academic research is based on a government’s or a company’s data, or is carried out in a controlled lab environment. More recently, field experiments have started exploring decision-making in real life, though they tend to focus on low-stakes choices, such as whether or not to buy a certain product or donate money to a certain charity. But Levitt wanted to know about life’s bigger dilemmas, like debating whether or not to have a child, which is something people don’t generally ponder in a controlled setting.

To set up such an experiment, the results of which were recently published in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper,  Levitt enlisted the help of his Freakonomics fans (the book has been spun out into a website and a podcast), asking them to visit a website created for the project, without telling anyone exactly what he was studying. He also found participants via Reddit.

The most Levitt told subjects was that his project involved research about how people make decisions about important events. He asked people who were on the fence about something to flip a virtual coin on the website. If someone got heads, the site instructed them to go ahead and  make a change. If they got tails, it meant keep the status quo.

Participants could choose from a menu of dilemmas, such as deciding whether to open a business, or could input their own. The most common life decision people were pondering? Whether to quit their jobs. Another large number of people couldn’t decide whether to break up with their partner. To make sure participants were truly undecided, they answered a series of questions that would help them arrive at a decision. If they still couldn’t make up their mind, they were instructed to flip a virtual coin. Over the course of a year, Levitt’s subjects flipped more than 20,000 virtual coins.

Levitt then followed up by email twice with each person: two months after tossing the coin, and then six months after tossing the coin. Levitt found that those who had made a major change, like filing for divorce or leaving their jobs, were more likely to report being happier two months later, and even happier six months later, Levitt says.

This was true whether they had made the change based on the coin toss or of their own volition. For those who made trivial decisions, such as whether to begin a diet or grow a beard, the coin toss didn’t seem to much matter: They were just as happy whichever path they took.

The results fit Levitt’s theory that people who are uncertain about whether to uproot their lives probably should. “As a basic rule of thumb, I believe that people are too cautious when it comes to making a change,” he says, adding that he is certainly not encouraging happily married people to split up.

First Round on the magical benefits of a quitter's mindset:

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