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Predictable Irrationality in Humans

I sometimes like to invent experiments that haven't been done yet (at least as far as I know). Usually I have some expectation about the outcome. In the case of the following experiment, I suspect it would demonstrate the predictable irrationality of humans. You see, we know that there is some irrationality in all of us, but in certain contexts we can more easily predict the ways in which it will be exhibited. Now, to get to my experiment...

We will start the experiment with 5,200 people. Each of them will be using some method to "psychically" affect a coin toss. Perhaps some will be allowed to develop their own technique, while others will be assigned one. They could be told to hold their breath and focus on the desired outcome, for example, or to close their eyes and see the coin landing on the right side. The exact "psychic" methods are not the most important part of the experiment, although later experiments could look at how they affect participants' perceptions.

By the way, the participants should each be alone, perhaps watching the coin toss on a live feed. We'll see why a bit later.

Now, of the 5,200, half will be told to make the coin land "heads up," and half will try to make the coin land "tails up." It is a safe assumption that 2,600 people will get the first flip right. We send the ones who got it wrong home, and then repeat the process, assigning 1,300 of the remaining participants to "heads" and 1,300 to "tails." I think we can agree that half will get it right again.

In fact, since the coin can only land one way or the other (if it lands on its edge we'll toss it again), half will get it right each time we repeat the toss. The ones who get each toss right will also have gotten every one correct up to that point, since we are eliminating those who ever get it wrong. So, as the little chart below indicates, by the ninth flip we have 10 people who have correctly "influenced" the coin to land on their assigned side every single time.

First Flip: 2,600
Second Flip: 1,300
Third Flip: 650
Fourth Flip: 325
Fifth Flip: 162
Sixth Flip: 81
Seventh Flip: 40
Eight Flip: 20
Ninth Flip: 10

Of course, you might see the irrationality of thinking that they influenced the coin at all. You can do the experiment as many times as you like and every time there have to be 10 who get nine flips in a row correct. It's in the nature of the way we set it up. Even if they just chose heads or tails on their own there would likely be around ten out of 5,200 who guess right nine times running, but by assigning a side of the coin to half of the group each time we guarantee that result. Clearly there is nothing magical or psychic here.

On the other hand, what would the experience of the participants be? That's what this experiment is really about. Imagine for a moment that you are holding your breath as the coin is flipped and "willing" it to land with the heads side up. Then you do it again and get it right, and again, and again. You are isolated from other participants, so you don't see the nature of the whole experiment. You just see that for nine times you were able to make the coin land as you wanted it to.

Now let me ask a question: Could you really just attribute this to random chance? You might say it is, trying to be rational, but wouldn't you feel--at least a little bit--that maybe you really were influencing that coin? Nine-in-a-row is a long stretch of flips to get right after all.

My hypothesis here is that most of the remaining ten participants who got it right every time would argue that they had affected the coin, or at least admit to feeling that they had affected it. Even at the seventh flip the majority of the forty left would probably say they had somehow influenced the coin. This is what I would call predictable irrationality. It shows how a random string of coincidences can make us believe in "powers" or other phenomenon for which we have no actual evidence.

There have been other experiments which show the predictable ways in which we are irrational, of course. I hope that this one is done, though, because it makes it clear that something like getting a coin toss prediction right nine-times-in-a-row does require any explanation other than the science of probability. In fact, it would be good to reveal the nature of the experiment to all participants afterward, to dispel their own irrational ideas a bit.


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Predictable Irrationality

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