Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist who co-authored the book Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything, says he’s long been fascinated by the social pressure against quitting, whether that means quitting a project, a job, or a marriage. “Behavioral biases tend to push the idea of not quitting, because you get the pain up front but the benefits down the road,” Levitt says.
So he was excited, he says, to do a “very different kind” of research project, one that infiltrates people’s everyday lives and examines what is most important to them. Most academic research is based on a government’s or a company’s data, or is carried out in a controlled lab environment. More recently, field experiments have started exploring decision-making in real life, though they tend to focus on low-stakes choices, such as whether or not to buy a certain product or donate money to a certain charity. But Levitt wanted to know about life’s bigger dilemmas, like debating whether or not to have a child, which is something people don’t generally ponder in a controlled setting.
To set up such an experiment, the results of which were recently published in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, Levitt enlisted the help of his Freakonomics fans (the book has been spun out into a website and a podcast), asking them to visit a website created for the project, without telling anyone exactly what he was studying. He also found participants via Reddit. The most Levitt told subjects was that his project involved research about how people make decisions about important events. He asked people who were on the fence about something to flip a virtual coin on the website. If someone got heads, the site instructed them to go ahead and make a change. If they got tails, it meant keep the status quo.