The Story of Heads and Tails
We are all very used to saying “heads or tails” when describing opposite sides of a coin, but have you ever stopped to wonder why they are called such? On many coins, the “head” element is clear – the head of a king, queen, emperor, president, or other notable person appears on one side.
But it is rare to find an actual tail on the opposite side. In fact, the two sides are more correctly called the obverse side and the reverse side, with heads being obverse and tails being reverse.
In ancient China, the two sides were known as “ship” and “head”, as one side of a coin often showed a ship, and the other side showed a head.
The most likely theory
The most likely theory as to why we choose to say heads or tails is that they are considered to be body-opposite parts. Imagine a cat or a dog – there’s a head at one end, and a tail at the other.
Coins were first developed around 700 years BC – that’s almost 3000 years ago. There have not always been heads marked on a coin, but all coins usually had a way of telling one side from another, even if it were as simple as having a cross on one side and leaving the other side blank.
As manufacturing techniques developed over time, intricate patterns and pictures were added to coins, including mythological creatures and animals. As the creatures were often on the opposite side to the picture of a head, this may be another reason that the reverse side of a coin is named tails.
The patterns and marks were originally put on to coins individually, but it didn’t take long for stamps to be developed. These are engraved with the pattern that will end up on the face of the coin, only in reverse – the image is mirrored, and any raised areas are made lower on the stamp. While the coin is being made it is heated to allow it to be formed into a shape. As it cools, striking it with the stamp will create an impression on the coin, giving the desired pattern.
Alternate methods for creating coins include using a mold with the pattern built into it which in earlier times allowed for a more accurate centering of the image. These days, industrial machines take care of the process.
Modern coins are made in such a way that if they are rotated on a vertical axis, the front and back images both appear upright. Mis-struck coins, or those where the front and back do not line up, can become worth far more than their face value due to their rarity.
Heads or Tails and Edges?
When considering choices, a element of chance is often required. Rolling dice won’t help if you need a simple yes or no result unless you choose a set of number to represent each option, and so flipping a coin is the preferred and easier method for many. When used in this way, a coin could be considered a 2-sided die.
However, a third option remains. What if the coin were to land on its edge? While it sounds like a ridiculous notion, it is not at all impossible. In fact, the odds of an American nickel landing on its edge is something like 6000 to 1.
Many physical factors work to prevent this happening regularly, such as the rotational force with which a coin is flipped. But if the coin were to land against another object, for example a stone or a wall, the chances of it remaining on its edge increase as it will be propped up on at least one side.
Coins are not always round. Some have flat edges and have five or more angles to these edges. This makes it even more likely that the coin will come to rest on its edge under the right conditions.
Do different shaped coins flip differently?
Coins with angles rather than a smooth circular edge may encounter more wind resistance than their round counterparts, which may reduce the number of times it is able to spin through the air.
This will not affect the chance of heads or tails coming up but may make it easier to “force” a result – if you know that the coin will only have a limited number of rotations, it may become obvious how it will land from noting which side was up when it was initially flipped.
A good strong spin on the coin should reduce the chance of this happening, and in any case the result will only go one way or the other.
An alternative to coin flipping is coin spinning, which at first glance may appear to be more random than flipping. It would be extremely difficult to judge how much effort to put into a spin for the rotation to end at just the right moment for the chosen side to show upwards.
Unfortunately, this plan is derailed by the different designs on opposite sides of the coin. The side with the most intricate design is likely to be the heaviest and will be pulled down by gravity in a much stronger fashion than if the coin were flipped.
It’s also more likely that the coin will remain on its edge than in a flipping situation, when trying heads or tails.
Street performers and magicians will tamper with coins, lightly shaving off one side of the edge, to create an unnatural bias if the coin is spinning. This will virtually guarantee that the coin will land in a particular position, thus making coin spinning much less random or fair than flipping a coin.
Natural wear and tear will also affect how a coin spins and lands, with older coins being more likely to have had their edges worn away. Coin spinning is therefore far less likely to produce a random result, or even a result approaching 50% in either direction, just like heads or tails.
Multiple Coin Flips
While a standard virtual coin flip can regularly give one of two results, using two coins can give an extra option.
If both coins on heads or tails, that’s result one and two. The third result is where the coins are not matching. Statistically, the chances of each of these events occurring is the same.
Using three coins could give even more options, but the chances of all three not matching are much higher than of all three matching, giving an uneven bias to the results.
If you need an even bias you may find it easier and more efficient to roll a die instead, as dice are available with many different numbers of faces. A 6-sided die is the most common and well known, but lower number and higher numbers (even 100 or more sides) are available.
Making a Decision with a Online Coin Flip
Many people choose to make decisions with a coin flip. The person or team who starts a game can be decided in this way, and there is no issue with it – it’s just one side or the other.
However, making important decisions with a coin flip isn’t so easy. Your subconscious mind may have already made a choice, but your conscious mind may not be ready to accept it.
Leading psychologists have suggested that using a online coin flip to make a decision is a great way to find out how you truly feel about a situation, but you must examine your feelings after the flip and not take the result as the actual decision.
For example, if a person faces two choices named A and B, they might flip a coin to choose. The coin lands on heads which correlates to choice A. The person is disappointed in this result, but they aren’t sure why.
The reason is simple
Their subconscious mind had already decided that choice B was the better option. That is the reason for their unease, and the result of the coin flip pushed this towards their conscious mind.
Had the coin landed on tails, denoting choice B, they would have felt OK about the result.
In this way, the best course of action to make a choice like this is to flip a coin, and simply follow your gut feeling when the result is discovered. You will be able to discover your true feelings about the situation and make the right decision – although the coin decided for you, you don’t have to do what an inanimate object tells you to do!
Coin flipping is an excellent way for making a decision, but not in the way you may originally have believed.