Heads or Tails
Alice needs to decide between buying a strawberry cake or an apple cake, but she really can't make up her mind. So, she tries to decide by... flipping a coin. Heads, strawberry. Tails, apple.
Flipping coins to decide on an action has been a practice that, according to The Other Wiki
, dates at least back to Ancient Rome. In fiction, it usually happens in the following situations:
- A character is unsure whether the option they are considering is the correct one, so they leave it up to fate.
- The Powers That Be dictate what action must be taken.
- A third party is trying to solve a dispute between two other people or factions. Often happens in contests when there is no clear winner.
Note that this trope can be used when deciding between two characters, things, or virtually anything.
A Born Lucky
character will almost always get the result they want in this. A staple feature of The Gambler
and The Trickster
, who frequently settle their disputes this way. Occasionally a character will pick a course of action with a coin flip because he wants to prevent his enemies from figuring out what he'll do—they can't predict it if he doesn't know himself
. Cheaters tend to use a Two-Headed Coin
. Heads, Tails, Edge
is a subtrope.
Anime and Manga
- A 1990 PSA from the Canadian organization Companies Committed to Kids encourages kids to not play games when making important decisions and to "use their heads" instead. Flipping a coin is one of the games depicted.
- In Hunter × Hunter, members of the Spiders flip a coin to settle disputes.
- In Moon - Subaru Solitude Standing, Minmin uses a coin toss on deciding her future: if she gets 'the side with the design', she'll give up her whole life in China and follow her dream of becoming a professional dancer.
- In the Pokémon anime, Dawn has a Poketch app to flip a coin which she sometimes uses to make decisions, for example the episode in which she got the Poketch she used it to decide whether to go left or right at a forked road.
- Two-Face's signature item in Batman is a Two-Headed Coin, except one side is all scratched up. This lets him easily identify which side landed.
- In a Donald Duck story by Carl Barks, "Flip Decision", Donald is conned by a charlatan into believing in Flipism: the idea that all of life's choices can be made on the flip of a coin. Hilarity Ensues, of course, though the coin does show uncanny predictive power.
- In a Richie Rich story, the same coin ends up deciding whether Mr. Rich should invest a billion dollars in a new company, and whether a hobo or tramp ("I can't decide... let's toss a coin!") should buy a soda or a candy bar. (The actual tosses' results are unknown, but they each read the result of it flying out from under the moped seat and into the window of the mansion.)
- One decides the fate of an entire world in The Trigan Empire. The Lokan dictator is wondering who to crush next; the nomadic warrior Vorgs or the cultured Tharvs? Expecting to conquer both in good time, he tosses a coin to settle the matter. It's the Tharvs, and their refugees flood into Vorg territory where they form an alliance with the Proud Warrior Race that defeats the Lokans and establishes the Trigan Empire.
- Mr. Tako habitually does this in King Kong vs. Godzilla to make decisions. He even does it when the two monsters first confront each other in an attempt to predict the winner.
- In Scarface (1932), Guino Rinaldo was the one to popularize this trait as a quirk of gangster and gangster movies in general.
- In The Gay Divorcee, when Guy arrives at Mimi's hotel suite, he flips a coin, apparently deciding whether to leave or stay. He doesn't like the answer, so he flips it again and stays.
- Parodied in the film Some Like It Hot where a character played the same actor who played Guino is Scarface asks a fellow gangster (who is flipping a nickel) "Where did you pick up THAT cheap trick?"
- In Coming to America, Prince Akeem flips a coin to choose between traveling to New York or Los Angeles to find himself a bride.
- In The Sentinel, the Secret Service, aware that an assassination attempt on the President is imminent and that there is someone in the Secret Service helping, are trying to take every precaution possible. The President's personal bodyguard Montrose suggests a coin toss. That is they create two plans for how the President travels, and right before they leave he tosses a coin to decide which one they do. That way, no one has advanced knowledge.
- At the start of Last Man Standing, John Smith chooses to take the road to Jericho by spinning a flask of whiskey, then going in the direction it points. As a result, a lot of people get killed.
- In Battle Royale Kiriyama flips a coin to decide whether he'll participate in the Program or not. We later learn that he has no emotions and simply "chooses" what to do. It turns out he could care less what it lands on, and simply decides to kill his classmates mercilessly, because it lands on tails.
- This happens twice in The Mote in God's Eye, in both cases to avoid having one's actions anticipated by superintelligent aliens:
- While the midshipmen are trying not to be captured, Horst Staley proposes flipping a coin when deciding what to do so his Mediator Fyunch(click) can't predict his decisions.
- When the human expedition prepares to leave the Mote system, the Moties send them a gift ship full of alien technology. The human leadership decides to randomly cut up the technology into pieces in case the Moties designed any of it for nefarious purposes. While Lady Sally is directing the procedure she flips a coin to decide how many times to cut.
- No Country for Old Men: The main villain flips a coin to decide whether to kill a potential victim. Those that choose not to take the chance are killed anyway, because they refuse to submit to the Powers That Be.
- In the book Q & A Ram flips a 'lucky coin' to make important decisions throughout his life. As it turns out, Ram's coin was a trick coin and he was fully aware of what life-changing choices he made throughout the story.
- From The Stainless Steel Rat:
I flipped a coin to decide, and of course won since I had palmed the coin before the toss. It was going to be action.
- Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called "The Machine that Won the War", where politicians and scientists gather around MULTIVAC, the computer used to calculate their army's strategy, and celebrate their victory. Then Henderson, the programmer who took in the raw data from the field and fed it into MULTIVAC, explains that he knew how unreliable that data was (People covering their mistakes, telling their supervisors what they wanted to hear, making their own guesses about other work, etc.) and so he began adjusting and manipulating the data according to his own theories. Then Jablonksy, who was Chief Interpreter of MULTIVAC's output, revealed that the machine itself was not reliable anymore due to inadequate parts and operators, so it did not matter what kind of data was fed into it and he changed the final output himself based on his own theories. Then Lamar Swift, Executive Director of the Solar Federation, the man who had to actually make the decisions in the war, reveals that he never trusted MULTIVAC's final output at all. Not completely, not when there were lives on the line. At the end of the story he reveals the method he used every time he had a particularly hard decision to make. "Heads or tails, gentlemen?"
- In The Wheel of Time books, Mat, and sometimes Rand, uses this method to make decisions. Since they both have luck-bending reality powers, this has extra significance. Mat in particular has a tendency to get coins landing on their edge.
- In Barefoot Boy With Cheek by Max Shulman, the protagonist decides to flip a coin to answer the question vexing him: "Yetta or Noblesse?" The coin disappears in a snowbank.
- In Andre Norton's Storm over Warlock, Shan and Thorvald are trapped in mists, with no sense of direction. They have an artifact rather like a bone coin, which has shown strange powers before, and decide to flip it as they have really no other alternative—heads this way, tails that way.
It flies off through the air, and they chase it instead.
- In the Known Space novel Protector, a superintelligent alien (sort of...) needs to fight a space battle with similarly intelligent aliens. He knows what the ideal weapon is for the circumstances—but also knows that the enemies would know what that ideal weapon is, and could use countermeasures. So instead, he comes up with four pretty-good weapons which would each require different countermeasures, and rolls a die to pick which one to use. (The enemies would be able to predict that he'd do that, too, but they wouldn't know which way the die came up.)
- In the first Soldiers of Barrabas novel, Billy Two walks in on Alex Nanos while he's having sex and announces he's going to re-enlist with the Marine Corps. Alex starts to argue, and eventually they decide to settle the matter with a coin toss. Unfortunately they don't have a coin as they're both naked, so they decide to flip the woman Alex was having sex with ('boobs or butt' instead of 'heads or tails'). She is not amused.
- Rolf Harris' rendition of "Botany Bay":
Now my crime against the whole British nation
Was to take some dry bread one fine day,
T'was death, or it was transportation,
So they tossed up a coin and sent me away.
- World Cup Soccer simulates its parent sport's coin toss every time you launch a new ball.
- In international soccer/football, the referee does a coin toss with the captains of both teams before the game. The winning captain decides which half of the field his team will defend, and the other team kicks off to start the first half.
- Euro 1968. Italy, against the Soviet Union, won by this after none having scored in the semi-final match. It was the first and only time that this method was used.
- In American Football in general and the Super Bowl in particular, a coin flip decides who gets to choose one of the following first: which goal to defend and whether to kickoff or receive. The winner usually decides to receive and the other team gets to choose which goal to defend; but sometimes the winner will decide which goal, leaving the choice to receive or kick to the loser. At the start of the 2nd, 3rd & 4th quarters the direction of play reverses, and at the top of the 3rd quarter whoever received at the beginning of the game now kicks off. If there's overtime they have another coin toss.
- The league has a long list of tiebreaks for two (or more) teams with equal records attempting to secure a playoff spot (or, in some cases, a specific playoff spot). In the unlikely case the teams make it all the way to the end of a tiebreaker list, the final tiebreaker is a literal coin toss.
- Magic: The Gathering has a few cards that require you to flip a coin.
- This is very common in the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Each player has a coin of his or her own. Players flip to see who goes first. Then there are several cards where the player flips his or her coin to determine the number of cards they draw from their deck or the amount of damage a move will do etc.
- Played With in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. They periodically flip a coin to make a decision, but it is established early on that the coin always lands heads up, as a symptom of You Can't Fight Fate. Until the one time it's tails.
- In Albert Herring, Albert takes a sovereign out of his prize purse and flips it to decide whether or not to have a wild night on the town. When it comes up heads for yes, he almost has second thoughts about it.
- Played with in Homestuck. Terezi will sometimes make decisions with a coin flip. (The coin is two-headed, but one side is scratched) However, she more often than not ignores the result and just does what she wants.
- Subverted by Rhea Snaketail in Slightly Damned. She flips a coin to decide if she will help Kieri, but lies about the outcome and decides to help anyway.
- In Freefall, Florence tries this more than once. Once Sam catches the coin in midair, and another time she thinks as she throws that if she really wanted it to be fair, she wouldn't use one of Sam's coins.
- In the prologue to the Arthur episode, "The World of Tomorrow", Arthur wants to go to the grand opening of the new Bionic Bunny store, while D.W. wants to see Mary Moo Cow's Ice-cow-pades. Their father decides to settle their dispute with a coin toss. Arthur calls heads and D.W. calls tails. The coin lands on the tails side and Arthur is forced to go to Mary's Ice-cow-pades. Arthur uses this example to explain to the viewers what could happen if they got stuck in a really bad day.
- In an episode of Futurama , the main characters enter an alternate universe where coin flips have opposite results causing decisions to be different. For example, that universe's Bender chose a gold paintjob instead of our Bender's gray, the Professor underwent an experiment to remove his own brain, and Fry and Leela are married.
- The Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! episode "Haunted House Hang-Up" had Shaggy flip a piece of baloney with one side covered in mustard to decide which side of a forked road the gang should take. Scooby promptly ate it before it landed.
- "Which Witch Is Which?" zig-zagged this with Shaggy flipping a coin to decide who would enter a spooky shack. Shaggy's options were "heads I win, tails you lose."
- The "heads I win, tails you lose" trope also appeared in an episode of Speed Buggy between Speed Buggy and Tinker. Tinker lost when the coin came up tails.
- Tiny Toon Adventures:
- At the beginning of the episode, "Thirteensomething", Plucky does this to help Buster and Babs decide what to watch on TV after school, as Buster would rather watch a football game, while Babs would rather watch the titular teen soap opera. Buster chooses the heads side, and Babs chooses the tails side. The coin lands on the tails side, and Buster is forced to watch Thirteensomething, much to his disdain. It is then revealed that Plucky's coin was double-sided, but he forgot which side was doubled.
- Played straight in the opening wraparound to the episode, "Weekday Afternoon Live", when Buster and Babs argue over who gets to host the episode. Buster chooses the heads side, and Babs chooses the tails side. This time, the coin lands on the head side, meaning Buster gets to host the show.
- The Sonic Boom episode, "Unlucky Knuckles" begins with Sonic and Knuckles playing Gopher Ball. To decide who goes first, Sonic flips a coin and Knuckles calls, "Tails!" ...to flip the coin, since he doesn't trust Sonic to be fair.
- At least one U.S. state has it written into its constitution that, in the event of a perfect tie during an election, the outcome may be decided by a coin flip if other alternatives (run-off, voting by state legislators) are unfeasible or likewise deadlocked.
- In the UK, if an election is tied, the result can be legally decided by either flipping a coin or drawing straws. An example of this was for Bassetlaw District Council in 2000 when tie was broken by flipping a coin.
- In 1845, pioneers Asa Lovejoy (of Boston, Massachusetts) and Francis Pettygrove (of Portland, Maine) both wanted to name a new city after their hometown. They flipped a coin and the city has been known as Portland, Oregon ever since. The coin they used, now known as the "Portland Penny", is on display in the Oregon Historical Society Museum.
- Vitriolic Best Buds Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel often used a coin toss to resolve disputes. Notably, this explains why their TV show was titled Siskel & Ebert: Ebert lost the coin toss to decide whose name should go first.