In their latest book, Think Like a Freak, economist Steven Levitt and his Freakonomics friend and co-author, Stephen Dubner, urge readers to think about the world differently by training readers’ brains to approach problems in unique ways. For example, they suggest readers avoid focusing on the big picture and instead focus on the smaller, more manageable (and more changeable) elements of a problem. They also encourage adopting a greater willingness to simply say, “I don’t know,” and share their thoughts about how to persuade those who don’t want to be persuaded (hint: don’t be a jerk, and you should tell stories).
In the final chapter, “The Upside of Quitting,” Levitt and Dubner suggest that, contrary to what many people have told you in life, you should quit. That is, when things get tough, you shouldn’t always tough them out and stick with it. Instead, you should quit and do so sooner rather than later. Because many of us believe adages like “winners never quit and quitters never win,” giving up is a difficult thing to do. The authors describe a “Freakonomics Experiment” where readers submitted a tough decision that they wanted the site to decide for them. You might assume that since economists were behind this experiment, they would implement a fancy algorithm or formula to help readers make the most data-based decision. Nope…they used a simple computerized coin flip. Despite the abundantly straightforward mechanism for making decisions (i.e., clicking a button that says “flip a coin”), readers submitted all types of questions. Some were about major life decisions (e.g., Should I ask for a raise? Should I quit my job?), whereas others were more mundane (e.g., Should I grow a beard?).
Of the questions readers asked, the most interesting to us at Science of Relationships was, “Should I break up with my boyfriend/girlfriend?” According to Think Like a Freak’s authors, over 200 people posed this question, which means that the Freakonomics Experiment was potentially responsible for about 100 break-ups (i.e., 50% of 200). Of course, this assumes that the users followed through with the coin’s decision (according to the book, the majority reported that they did follow through). Although all decisions made by the coin-flip did not influence users’ happiness (e.g., facial hair decisions), those who made break-up decisions based on the coin flip were happy with the outcome. Think about how bizarre that is…roughly 100 people who were in a relationship broke up based on a random decision made by a computer and were generally happy about it.* This is notable because the ultimate decision on the relationship’s fate wasn’t made by the user, which means the user could have been unhappy with the outcome (i.e., they broke up with their partner and weren’t totally convinced they should).
Kind of makes you wonder if there is any research linking break-ups and happiness, eh? Good! Now you’re thinking like a freaky relationship scientist. The coin-flip results suggest that people can break up and be happy about it, a pattern that is consistent with research findings. First, we know that people in relationships predict that they will be sadder about the break-up of their relationship than they are when it does actually break up.1 I also know from some of my own research that when you ask undergraduates who recently broke up, “Overall, how would you describe the break-up’s impact on you?” a majority (41.3%) rated their break-up as positive, while 25.7% said it was neutral. Only 33% reported that the break-up was negative.2 Taken together, these studies suggest that the Freakonomic’s website users’ happiness in the aftermath of their break-up wasn’t a freak occurrence.
It is also worth pointing out that everyone wouldn’t be happy submitting their relationship’s future to a coin flip. Rather, putting your relationship’s fate in the hands of a coin flip probably says something about your relationship. For example, if you’re willing to take a 50% chance of your relationship ending, it is quite likely that your relationship already has less commitment. Those with more commitment wouldn’t take the chance. We also know that relationships with less commitment are more likely to break up3, which may also explain why users were happy when the coin suggested ending the relationship. Essentially, these users may have sensed that a break-up was imminent and conveniently had a coin-flip to blame (“it’s not me, baby, it’s the coin”). Of course, that coin may be doing both partners a favor since having doubts about your relationship prior to marriage (i.e., “cold feet”) relates to less marriage satisfaction and a higher likelihood for divorce, especially for women.4
Ultimately, as far as your relationship is concerned, whether a coin flip is or isn’t an effective way to make relationship decisions isn’t what’s most important. Rather, what may be most revealing is whether you would be willing to allow a coin flip to determine the fate of your relationship. Freaky.
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1Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., Krishnamurti, T., & Loewenstein, G. (2008). Mispredicting distress following romantic breakup: Revealing the time course of the affective forecasting error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(3), 800-807. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2007.07.001
2Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., & Bizzoco, N. (2007). Addition through subtraction: Growth following the dissolution of a low quality relationship. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(1), 40-54. doi:10.1080/17439760601069234
3Le, B., Dove, N., Agnew, C., Korn, M., & Mutso, A. (2010). Predicting nonmarital relationship dissolution: A meta-analytic synthesis. Personal Relationships, 17, 377-390.
4Lavner, J. A., Karney, G. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2012). Do cold feet warn of trouble ahead? Premarital uncertainty and four-year marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(6), 1012-1017. doi: 10.1037/a0029912.
*Clearly there are really 4 possibilities here (happy with break-up, happy with staying together, unhappy break-up, unhappy staying together). I’m intentionally glossing over 3 of them because I find the happy break-ups the most interesting and potentially counterintuitive/freaky.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.