That’s an instinct we should fight against, according to the findings of a new study by Steven Levitt, University of Chicago economist and Freakonomics co-author, published in Oxford University’s Review of Economic Studies.
The study asked people who were having a hard time making a decision to participate in a randomized digital coin toss on the website FreakonomicsExperiments.com. People asked questions ranging from “Should I quit my job?” to “Should I break up with my significant other?” and “Should I go back to school?” Heads meant they should take action. Tails, they stuck with the status quo.
Ultimately, 20,000 coins were flipped—and people who got heads and made a big change reported being significantly happier than they were before, both two months and six months later.
“The data from my experiment suggests we would all be better off if we did more quitting,” Levitt said in a press release. “A good rule of thumb in decision making is, whenever you cannot decide what you should do, choose the action that represents a change, rather than continuing the status quo.”
Do more quitting may sound like strange advice in the midst of a pandemic that’s mauling the labor market. Those lucky enough to still have a stable income and health insurance may be quite sensibly wary of jettisoning those things for the great unknown.
But dig a little deeper, and Levitt’s suggested rule of thumb for decision-making turns out to be decidedly evergreen, and may even have added significance in current upheavals of the Covid-19 era. We’re biased toward upholding the status quo, but it’s a bias that hurts us.
Flip a Coin, Make a Change
There are plenty of caveats to this experiment, which collected data over the course of a year beginning in 2013. For one thing, as Levitt explains, the subject pool wasn’t at all random. Participants self-selected into the experiment via various social media channels associated with Freakonomics, and tended to be young, male, and highly-educated. They were also responding to a call specifically for people who were teetering on the brink of making a tough decision. All this means that they may have been more likely to abide by the results of a random coin toss than the average person. (People who got heads on the coin toss were approximately 25% more likely to report making a change than those who got tails, according to the study.)
It’s also true that people who followed the instructions of the coin toss may have been more likely to respond to the follow-up surveys months later, compared to those who ignored the coin’s instructions. People who were happy with the results of making a change may have also been more likely to fill out the surveys than people disappointed with the outcome. After all, it’s way more fun to think about how well your life has turned out now that you’ve gone through a major upheaval than it is to report that you think you made a mistake, and would take it back if you could.
In addition, it’s worth noting that the study’s message about the benefits of changing the status quo applies specifically to people who are agonizing about whether or not to make a move. In economic terms, they’re on the margin. People who are mostly content with their jobs probably wouldn’t follow the instructions of a digital coin toss if it told them to quit, and if they did, there’s no reason to think they’d be happier for it. No one’s suggesting we all start living our lives like we’re psychopathic villains in No Country for Old Men. If the status quo is going well, stick with it!