A Quarter Flipped for Your Rational Thoughts
by Don Hall
The old man was faced with a dilemma. He needed to decide between two options and he was torn. He understood that most decisions in his life often boiled down to two choices: do the thing or not. Sometimes it was a choice of doing one thing or another. A crossroads. This was not that.
He had made a “pro’s” and “con’s” list on the doing or the not but was on the fence. Which way to go.
He pulled out a quarter. “Heads, I’ll do it. Tails, I won’t.” He flipped the coin. It landed on tails. He was immediately seized by the desire to flip it one more time. He realized that his hesitation to accept the chance odds was the answer he was looking for.
He decided to do it.
I once worked for a guy who would have an idea for the festival he produced. He'd formulate the idea. He'd be convinced that it was sound. He would then go and tell his idea to as many people as he could to gauge their reaction. If the overwhelming consensus was that it was a shit idea, he'd decide they were right. Even if they weren't.
It used to drive me nuts because I'm more of a try it out and see if it works type. The best advice I was ever given on the subject of indecision was to flip a coin. If you want to flip it again, you already know your choice.
How we make decisions tends to get complicated (certainly more complicated than the 50/50 odds of a coin toss). Most psychological studies indicate that we make them more with an emotional foundation than a rational process.
When we are calm, the slow rational thinking guides our decisions. The emotional system acts spontaneously without consideration for the broader consequences of the action.
The reflective system is clearly the grown-up in this pair, and its job is to monitor and correct the impulse of emotion. For example, our emotional mind wants to order dessert and smoke a cigarette, and our reflective brain knows we should resist the temptation and quit smoking. The final decision is determined by the relative strengths of these two systems.
This tracks with common sense and anecdotal experience. I’m more inclined to go along with theories about complex issues when the science and the personal go hand in hand. I’m less likely to buy into the lived experience thing if it is in contrast with data. Sort of like hedging my bets on deciding which information is misleading or credible.
For example, the guest at the casino who refuses to wear a mask because he doesn’t know anyone who has contracted COVID and his theory that it is overblown to solidify a left-leaning agenda in Congress loses out when his theory is in direct contrast with the mountains of scientific evidence that COVID is real and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
If your lived experience is not in concert with the facts at large, you are an exception rather than a rule.
The facts at large are that most of us make decisions with our emotions at the forefront and, while our emotions are valid, our decisions based strictly upon them can often be the wrong choices. For the most part, we know better but lead with that unreflective aspect out of nothing but instinct and entropy.
This is important. The quality of the information we use to make decisions on how to react is crucial in making smart and thoughtful decisions. With so much of our information being targeted to our emotional response, we need stop-gaps built in so we aren't each led by the nose to reactionary and destructive behaviors.
The conclusions reached by the Mueller investigation into Russian interference with our 2016 election were varied but the one that is most concrete is the hackers leveraged our social media platforms to increase our emotional divisions via incendiary posts about race, policing, perceptions of socialism, and a wholesale attack on the efficacy of our government. How terrifically Russian of them.
And we bought it all.
The conservative side of the yard bought the anti-government socialism skew; the liberal faction started wearing their postmodern Marxist t-shirts and the race was on. The Marxists lost in 2016 and won in 2020. The Good Old Boys are winning in the anti-union fights. The Marxists are winning in the universities. As we continue to battle it out with reactionary intent, the likelihood of a continued see-saw of ideology and passionate response is practically guaranteed.
In between the White Nationalists and Critical Race Theorists are the solid, mostly rational center trying to make good decisions based on hard fact and a hope for unity amidst the white noise of the internet.
You’ll find that none of the people who make you lose your temper has done anything that might affect your mind for the worse; and outside of the mind there’s nothing that is truly detrimental or harmful for you.
After all, you even had the resources, in the form of your ability to think rationally, to appreciate that he was likely to commit that fault, yet you forgot it and are now surprised that he did exactly that.
When I was a pup, I was taught to "count to ten" when I felt the stirring up of hot emotions. I was an angry Irish kid in the sticks of the MidWest and this advice was more insisted upon than suggested. So I did it. I counted to ten. I took that pause. It worked sometimes. When it didn't work I usually paid some sort of consequential price. I learned.
Much later, an older friend—one who had lived enough life to understand my impulsive nature as he was of the same ilk—suggested the coin flip.
"It takes a moment to assign your choices to one or the other side of the coin. It takes another moment to physically balance, flip, and catch the coin. These brief actions divert the gas on fire in your belly long enough to find a sense of rationality.
The discovery I've made is that I almost always already know the correct course of action and, if I really want to flip it a second time, the choice has been made."
Would Matt Gaetz be in the legal peril he's put himself in if he'd used a silver nickel rather than Venmo?
If Kim Potter had taken those brief moments before reaching for her taser and pulling out her pistol to flip a coin, perhaps Duane Wright would still be breathing and imprisoned for fleeing a police officer.
What if Derek Chauvin had, as a function of his training as a Minneapolis policeman, stopped as he decided to pin George Floyd to the ground with his knee on the man's neck and flipped a coin? Heads, knee to the neck for as long as it took. Tails, find a less aggressive approach to the situation.
As Chuck Palahniuk wrote "Every breath is a choice."
You can't play the odds for every breath but breathing isn't an emotional ride. I often say that he who is most certain is almost inevitably full of shit. This applies to True Believers (of anything), climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, anti-capitalists, anti-feminists, misandrists, and Cubs fans.
Flip a coin. Take the moment to cool the jets.
Make rational decisions.