Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Just what is Freakonomics Experiments?
A: Freakonomics Experiments is a set of simple experiments about complex issues—whether to break up with your significant other, quit your job, or start a diet, just to name a few.
Sometimes in life you face one of these decisions, and you just don't know what to do. In the end, whatever you decide will essentially be a flip of a coin. Freakonomics Experiments help you make the decision by flipping that coin for you.
Q: I flipped a coin a while ago, and the site looks different from the last time I was here. Why has it changed?
A: As of now, we have all of the data we need—nearly 30,000 observations, in fact—and we've started analyzing all of it to see just what the Freakonomics Experiments Team has been up to over the past year. As a result, we've made a few changes to the website interface and the user experience.
But we are still offering our coin-flipping services! Feel free to type in any question you may face, and we'll flip the coin for you. Well, we should clarify. You can't type in any question—there are a few that are off-limits.
Q: Now I’m curious. What can’t I ask?
A: Some questions are too complex and life-changing to be answered by the random flip of a coin. What does that mean? More concretely, our coin flipping software rejects questions with words like murder or steal. If someone has a question about one of the topics on our black list, they won’t be able to find the answer from a coin.
Q: So who is in charge of these experiments?
A: Freakonomics Experiments is a collaboration between researchers at the University of Chicago, Freakonomics, and—we hope!—you. Steve Levitt and John List, of the University of Chicago, run the experimental and statistical side of things. Stephen Dubner, Steve Levitt, and the Freakonomics staff have given these experiments the Freakonomics twist you’re used to. Once you flip the coin, you become a member of the most important part of the collaboration, the Freakonomics Experiments team. Without your participation, we couldn’t complete any of this research.
Q: What exactly are you trying to find out with this research?
A: Freakonomics is all about exploring human behavior, and what better way to do that than to involve all of you! We expect we’ll find out some surprising facts about how people act when faced with a dilemma. We’re learning a lot so far, but we can’t tell you about our findings just yet—we'll share our findings with the Freakonomics community as time goes on.
Q: Can you tell me more about the experimental design?
A: We certainly can—there’s nothing an academic likes more than explaining his latest research.
This flow chart is a great introduction to the experiments. You’ll choose a question that you are facing today, such as whether to quit your job or buy a house. Then you’ll provide us some background information about yourself. After that, you’ll flip the coin to find out what you should do in your situation. What the coin comes up—heads or tails—is completely random.
1.Learn more about the questions
2.Choose a question
3.Take a short survey
4.Flip the coin
5.Take follow-up surveys
Q: Can I trust you that the coin flip is truly random?
A: Of course! Our research design absolutely depends on the randomness of your coin flip. In fact, we cared so much about making the coin flip truly random, that we went all the way to Switzerland (sort of). We’re using Swiss-based Fourmilab’s True Random Number Generator, which in turn relies on the radioactive decay of Cæsium-137.
How does it do this? Broadly speaking, the number generator records the length of time between two consecutive decays of a Cæsium-137 nucleus. How long it takes for a given nucleus to decay is random. Since we base the outcome of the coin flip on this number, this means your coin flip is random, too. But we’re economists (and a journalist), not scientists, so if you want to know more about radioactive decay and how the programmers at Fourmilab can detect it, we recommend you go here.
Q: What will you do with all this data?
A: We have a team back at the University of Chicago poring over the Freakonomics Experiments data, looking for interesting and intriguing results. We’ll likely publish our findings in academic journals, as well as in a future book.
One thing we will absolutely not do is give away your information to anyone. Your identity and all other data we collect is 100% safe with us.
Q: How did you ensure that participants stayed anonymous throughout these experiments?
A: We have a lot of experience with these types of projects, and we have never had any problems keeping personal data completely confidential. Only the University of Chicago research team will have access to your data, and they’ll use it solely for analysis. We’ll also rely on a unique ID—and not your name—when looking at the data.
Q: I found a problem with the site. What should I do?
A: If you run into any technical difficulties while navigating our site, please contact us at [email protected] , and we'll get to work remedying the problem ASAP.