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 (that is, to counter I Know You Know I Know)—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.
- 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.
- In Mega Man Reawakened, Gemini Man uses coin flips to make decisions at times.
- In A Shadow of the Titans, this is how the Chaotic Neutral Gadjo makes up his mind on the decision of either pledging loyalty to the Oni and their plan to Take Over the World, or fighting against them, since both ideas appeal to him.
- In Harry Potter and the Prince of Slytherin Padma Patil mentions that her father flipped a coin when he was trying to decide whether her or her twin sister Parvati would become betrothed to the son of a wealthy Indian wizard when they were three.
- 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 by the same actor who played Guino in Scarface (1932) 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.
- Babe, in No Man of Her Own, always flips a coin to make a decision that he can't decide on. He mentions that he never goes back on a coin either.
- 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.
- Averted in Screamers. When we're introduced to the protagonist, he's examining an ancient Roman coin. In the climax he and his Love Interest have got to an escape rocket, but there's only room for one. Both insist the other should go, so he says they'll toss the coin. But as the coin is spinning on the ground, he just tosses his glove on it and says it's meaningless because she's going anyway.
- In Crooked House, Roger admits that he had not read Philip's screenplay before deciding not to fund it; instead opting to toss a coin. When asked why he tossed a coin, he replies that he couldn't find a die.
- Circus: Throughout the film, Leo makes several important decisions by tossing a coin. This includes whether he is going to shoot his wife Lily.
- 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 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.
- Frequently used to settle haggling debates on Bargain Hunt when the team's expert and the seller cannot agree a price.
- The series finale of JAG ends with Harm and Mac (who finally tied the knot) flipping a Challenge Coin to decide which of them will leave the military and live with the other so they don't have to be stationed apart from each other.
- The Mentalist: An episode of season 2 features the protagonist winning a bet this way. It landed heads 20 times in a row. No wonder they thought he was cheating.
- Subverted in an episode of Gilligan's Island. Gilligan was slated to duel with a native by throwing spears. Skipper had a coin to toss to determine who went first. He kept trying to get Gilligan to pick heads (it was a 2-headed coin) but Gilligan kept insisting on tails. In the end, the native (translated by the Professor) told Gilligan he could go first.
- In an episode of Scrubs, J.D. and Kim can't decide if they want to keep their baby, so they leave it up to a coin toss. It lands on its edge.
- Although jokes involving such a show have come up before on sitcoms, there actually was a real Heads or Tails? Game Show.
- Speaking of game shows, they tend to do coin tosses backstage before a show to determine who goes first in a game, most often when there's no returning champion- due to either the format not using them, or because a champion retired the previous episode- or when it's the first episode.
- On Human Target Gurerro solves a Wire Dilemma over the phone by flipping a coin.
- On one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, two different groups of scientists wanted to use the ship's detector array at the same time, and Data couldn't decide which group should use it first. Geordi suggested flipping a coin.
Data: I'll go replicate one.
- Invoked very dramatically by Tommy in Peaky Blinders.
Before the war, when I had an important decision to make, I used to flip a coin. Perhaps that is what I will do again.
- Doctor Who.
- In "The Pirate Planet", the Doctor flips a coin to make a decision, then reveals that the coin is from a planet with two monarchs, so both sides are heads.
- In "Warriors' Gate" there is a lot of coin flipping, which is tied in with the story's themes about predestination.
- At the end of "Thin Ice", Nardole gets annoyed at the Doctor for nicking off to have another adventure in time and space instead of staying on Earth like he promised. The Doctor promises to stay if Nardole wins a coin toss. However earlier in the episode he got the secret of winning a coin toss out of a conman who was using this trick, so Nardole loses.
- 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.
- Dante picks up this quirk in the second installment of Devil May Cry for unexplained reasons, using his coin to determine whether or not he'll help Lucia and Matier, most notably when deciding who between him and Lucia will go into Demon World and slay the recently-revived devil king Argosax and most likely be trapped there for eternity. Lucia notices in the epilogue that it's a trick coin and the coin itself later comes in handy when Dante switches his own lucky coin with the Arcana Medaglia to fool Arius near the end of the game. Dante retains this trait during his guest appearance in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. Savvy players can actually recruit Dante for only one Macca if they know about the trick coin.
- In Final Fantasy VI Edgar and Sabin flip a coin to determine who will be king of Figaro — or, more specifically, the winner would choose their own path. Edgar flipped a Two-Headed Coin, but called "heads" for Sabin; Sabin chose to leave the castle. Later, Celes borrows the same coin against Setzer. He falls for it. If you bring both Figaro brothers to that cutscene, Sabin is rather appalled to learn the truth about the coin (and it is that coin, because Celes borrows it from Edgar before she makes the offer).
- Celes: Heads, you take us to the Empire's capital. Tails, I agree to marry you.Setzer: (after the flip) Interesting coin, this... it has two heads... how low can you stoop? I love it!
Setzer: Sometimes you just have to feel your way through life.
- Subverted in the ending of the game. When faced with two paths, Setzer flips a coin, and the group starts down the path it bounced. Setzer stops them and decides to go the other way, which turns out to be correct.
- In BioShock Infinite, Booker DeWitt runs into Robert and Rosalind Lutece for an obligatory "heads or tails" coin flip, in which Booker chooses "tails" and flips the coin, only for it to come up heads. Rosalind records on the sandwich board Robert carries, showing that all previous (127) attempts have always come up as heads.
- One of the first parts of the Decision Game of Zero Time Dilemma is Zero challenging Carlos to Heads or Tails with a multi-colored coin. If Carlos gets it right then he and Zero's other captives will be let go while losing causes them to play the full Decision Game with humanity's lives on the line. Carlos can actually win and Zero honors his side of the agreement.
- 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.
- That's because—more often than not—the result doesn't make a difference.
- 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.
- Episode 18 of World's Greatest Adventures begins with Rufus trying to use this method to decide where to go next on an exploring venture. (He keeps losing the coin in the foliage, and ends up landing it in a bush of nettle.)
- 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."
- In "Ghastly Ghost Town," Shaggy flips a coin as to whether or not to enter an abandoned saloon (heads for no, tails for yes. "The fact that it's a two-headed coin is beside the point!").
- 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.
- The Beatles cartoon "Devil In Her Heart" had Ringo losing his way to the picnic grounds and approaches a fork in the road. He flips a coin to decide which route to take, and the coin sprouts vampire wings (he and George are in Transylvania) and flies away.
- Kaeloo: When Stumpy and Pretty get into an argument, Stumpy pulls out a coin so they can toss it and see who wins. He then says "Heads I win, tails you lose." He wins, obviously, and Pretty tries to attack him.
- The Code Lyoko episode "A Fine Mess" opens with Ulrich tossing a Euro coin to guess whether Odd or Yumi will come out of the scanners first. He calls Odd as coming out and at first, appears to have lost when Yumi is in the first scanner open...except it's Odd in her body. At the end of the episode, Ulrich flips the Euro coin at the vending machine to guess whether Odd or Yumi will appear first. He calls Odd coming out, and he wins.
- 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.