Should You Let the Dice Decide?

Randomising choices with the help of dice or coin tosses has surprising benefits

Posted Aug 07, 2020

Should you let the dice decide?
Source: Wilhei/Pixabay

Decision making is a tricky business. Faced with up to 35,000 choice per day and an overwhelming number of options, it is not surprising that many people rely on decision rules (so-called heuristics) or ask friends and family for guidance.

When tired of decision making, it may even be tempting to rely on fate. This can involve the use of so-called “randomisers.” Typical examples include rolling a die or simply tossing a coin.

Sometimes, people rely on randomisers without actually noticing. For my part, I like following the random suggestions of new classes by my yoga app, because it helps me to experience a wide variety of teaching styles and yoga types. How about yourself? Do you ever use the random shuffle function when listening to music? Have you ever flipped a coin to pick an outfit?

Should We Make Choices at Random?

I came to ponder the benefits of random decision making when watching "The Big Bang Theory" last night. The episode in question showed its nerdy main character Sheldon re-purpose the dice from Dungeons and Dragons to solve trivial decision problems. Famously confident, he explained: “Best to free up my mind to do what it does best: Enlighten and amaze.”

However, while Sheldon marvels at his newly found freedom, his friends question the strategy’s success. Indeed, his random restaurant order of a vegetable side dish accompanied by a large pitcher of margaritas is unlikely to make for a satisfying dinner.

This fictional example suggests that completely random decision making is unlikely to work across all contexts. In many situations, a pre-selection of options may be necessary. For example, Sheldon might have improved his dinner choice by narrowing the initial range of options to exclude side dishes, sharing platters, and drinks for more than one person.

What About Important Choices?

In some trivial decision situations, the use of randomisers may indeed lighten the cognitive load. Additionally, this strategy might satisfy a person’s whimsical curiosity to try new things. But how do dice fare in more important decision contexts? Previous research suggests that decision-makers struggle with the idea of abandoning their own reasoning and completely relying on a randomisation tool. However, this doesn’t mean that randomisers can’t be of any help at all.

Let me borrow another example from "The Big Bang Theory." In a different episode, Sheldon is faced with the agonising challenge of picking a new game console. With space for only one console on his TV stand, he is trying to choose between a PS4 and an Xbox One. Even after consulting the internet and friends for advice, he simply can’t make up his mind.

Girlfriend Amy, who doesn’t share Sheldon’s passion for video games, is close to despair and eventually suggests a decision strategy similar to rolling dice. Why not just flip a coin? Rather than blindly following the outcome, however, she recommends observing his emotional reaction. Does he experience relief or disappointment when faced with the coin’s result? Sheldon’s spontaneous reaction could be a useful hint as to which option he subconsciously prefers.

Indeed, using coins or dice as randomisers but reserving the right to overrule their outcome may offer surprising benefits. Recent psychology research investigated this decision strategy in more detail. Across two experiments using coins and dice respectively for making menu choices in a restaurant, randomisers appeared to act as decision “catalysts.” Participants did not always follow the randomisers’ outcome, but the process helped them make up their minds when indecisive. The researchers suggested that flipping a coin or rolling a die led participants to imagine the respective outcome more vividly, which resulted in a stronger emotional response. By picturing the individual menu option in their mind, they recognised hidden preferences and made decisions more easily.

A related study provided further evidence that randomisers simplify the choice process. When using randomisation tools, decision-makers were less likely to seek additional but unnecessary information about the different options. This helped to speed up their choices.

How to Use Decision Randomisers

Taken together, previous research demonstrates surprising benefits of flipping coins and rolling dice as long as decision-makers don’t let the outcomes dictate their choices. Using randomisers but reserving the option to deviate from their outcomes can speed up the decision process and help to overcome decision blocks.

Unfortunately, flipping a coin failed to help Sheldon solve his video game dilemma. While he liked the idea in theory, he didn’t have a coin with him! If you struggle with similar problems, there’s no need to worry. The internet offers plentiful resources to help you randomise decisions. Simply use a virtual dice roller or this website for electronic coin flips. As an interesting bonus, the website allows you to pick from a variety of antique and novelty coins. Do you know what the East German Mark looked like? Why don’t you have a go and find out.

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