By Jon Wilner and Mark Emmons
Posted: 10/16/2009 06:28:06 PM PDT
Everyone knows the flip of a coin is a 50-50 proposition.
Only it's not.
You can beat the odds.
So says a three-person team of Stanford and UC-Santa Cruz researchers. They produced a provocative study that turns conventional wisdom, well, on its head for anyone who has ever settled a minor dispute with a simple coin toss.
It also could have profound implications in America's favorite sport — pro football — because the coin flip plays an integral role in deciding games that go into overtime.
But first, here's what the researchers concluded: Using a high-speed camera that photographed people flipping coins, the three researchers determined that a coin is more likely to land facing the same side on which it started. If tails is facing up when the coin is perched on your thumb, it is more likely to land tails up.
How much more likely? At least 51 percent of the time, the researchers claim, and possibly as much as 55 percent to 60 percent — depending on the flipping motion of the individual.
In other words, more than random luck is at work.
The humble coin toss has been the subject of considerable study by researchers exploring concepts such as probability and statistics. There even was an unscientific look by a prisoner who once flipped a coin 10,000 times inside his cell.
"But they've all been wrong because people write down whether it comes up heads or tails, but they don't know how it
started," said Susan Holmes, a Stanford University statistics professor who co-authored the study, which was published in 2007. "You have to know how it starts.''
And if you know that, the researchers believe, then you have a better chance of knowing how it will land.
The power of a coin flip
Tossing a coin long has been a choice for deciding trivial matters — like a dinner-table spat over the last piece of pizza. But coin flips also have played much more prominent roles. The Oregon city of Portland got its name after a best two-out-of-three penny toss by two settlers. (Boston was the losing name.)
There was a fateful coin flip on Feb. 3, 1959, that allowed early rock 'n' roll star Ritchie Valens to get a seat on a small plane that was supposed to carry him, Buddy Holly and two others to their next concert site. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all four.
The coin flip even is found in literature and cinema. Javier Bardem won an Oscar for his role in the 2007 film version of Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" in which the villain tosses a coin to decide whether he should kill someone or let them live.
But nowhere in modern society does the coin flip loom larger than in sports — specifically the NFL.
A coin toss determines which team gets the football first in overtime if the score is tied after regulation play. And heading into this season, the team winning the overtime toss had won 63.3 percent of the games — and won the game 43.3 percent of the time on its first possession, preventing the other team from even touching the ball.
Full story at: mercurynews.com/top-stories/ci_13579962