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Magic 8 Balls. Coin flips. Why do we turn to objects to make decisions for us?

Rhode Island’s quirkiest collector knows how to help lighten the load of our overwhelming daily decisions, courtesy of a Japanese toy woodpecker.

A sample of the decision making devices in Ben Sisto's collection, including a Magic 8 Ball, the Radio Shack Executive Decision Maker, dice, and others.Photos from Ben Sisto; Globe staff photo illustration

THE FIRST ONE CAME FROM AN EBAY AUCTION, and it cost $6 plus shipping. The Radio Shack Executive Decision Maker, from the 1970s, is a Rubik’s Cube-sized oracle with fake mahogany paneling. The user pushes a button and receives one of six possible answers, including “Definitely,” “Never,” and “Why Not.”

In November 2014, Ben Sisto asked the small — but surprisingly heavy — black box a question out loud: Should he begin collecting decision makers? The first time, the red LED flashed a coy “Ask Again” on the box’s blank, obsidian face. The second time he asked, it gave him an answer that changed everything: “Definitely.”

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In 2014, Ben Sisto set out to accrue what he now calls, cheekily, Rhode Island’s “largest archive of decision-paralysis relief tools.”Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

So Sisto set out to accrue what he now calls, cheekily, Rhode Island’s “largest archive of decision-paralysis relief tools.” He isn’t new to collecting; notably, he attempted to collect every existing piece of memorabilia related to the Baha Men’s 2000 hit, “Who Let The Dogs Out.” He works in Providence as an artist, curator, and freelance marketing manager for art organizations.

Sisto’s collection of decision makers includes 20th-century tools, toys, and mystical implements, often in original packaging, in varying condition. There are “liquid dice agitators” (patented as Magic 8 Balls), dice, coins, and spinning arrows, some attached to lockets, others to coffee mugs or key chains. There are magnet-guided pendulums that jerk between answers, as though moved by an unseen hand. Another group uses electronics to deliver their verdicts, including a wizard in a starry robe and long white beard, trapped inside a crystal-ball-esque plastic bubble, who intones his answers to your questions in a robotic voice.

Sisto has named his collection QUERI — a combination of “query” and the abbreviation for Rhode Island. For my visit, he spreads his bounty out across a table in his Providence home. The collection now contains nearly 100 objects, though Sisto still struggles to define exactly what belongs. (Do Ouija boards count? What about tarot cards?) For now though, he is trying to stick to items that provide the clarity of a yes/no answer, he says.

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It’s almost impossible to put a number on how many daily decisions we need to make — 35,000 comes up a lot, though researchers I spoke to are skeptical. So let’s just say: Too many. As a result, humans have long relied on chance to help us out. The Romans called coin tossing “navia aut caput,” the outcome being either a ship (navia) or head (caput). In 1845, a coin decided the naming of Portland, Oregon — if that copper penny had fallen differently, it would have been named Boston. Rock-paper-scissors, meanwhile, is said to date back to Han Dynasty China, and dowsing rods, which Sisto also includes in his collection, were apparently used to help St. Teresa of Ávila to choose a spot for her convent (though, confusingly, they were also banned by the Catholic Church as a form of occultism).

A beautiful Japanese woodpecker on a pole is one of the decision makers in Ben Sisto's collection.Aram Boghosian

The Magic 8 Ball — perhaps the most popular modern decision maker ­ — also has links to mysticism. Created after a boom in spiritualism and seances in the early 20th century, it was initially patented as the “Syco-Seer: The Miracle Home Fortune Teller” by Alfred Carter, whose mother claimed to be clairvoyant. Sisto’s collection contains a slightly later model: the Syco-Slate, a thumb-sized cardboard tube illustrated with a wide-eyed woman’s face. Today, in its famous billiard-ball form, the Magic 8 Ball is sold by toy-giant Mattel, which has changed hardly anything about its design since the 1970s.

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Toward the end of the 20th century, a new genre of decision makers popped up, mostly meant to adorn the desks of Very Important Men. Aimed at the upward-failing middle-management executive, these toys offer suggestions such as “Give yourself a raise,” “Fire someone,” and “Decide only after 3 martinis.” Others seem to be aimed at the flippant stock trader, with simply two options: buy and sell. “I would describe the ‘executive’ as a white man between the ages of 35 and 45, who mostly thinks about sports and golfing,” Sisto says. “No one knows what they do, but they somehow also work really hard.”

But it’s not only late-century offices: These tools and toys to help us make choices are ubiquitous across time. Why are we charmed by the idea of giving away our agency to an inanimate object? Anouchka Grose, a London-based psychoanalyst and writer, suggests that it may have to do with how uncomfortable most people find the state of indecision. In her experience, it’s the feeling of being stretched between two choices — not living with the wrong one — that people find hardest. “It is actually very rare for people to have a big, single regret,” Grose says.

This is where “decision-paralysis relief tools,” as Sisto calls them, come in. In a large-scale study by a researcher at the University of Chicago, people considering a major life decision who were told to make a change by a coin flip were both much more likely to actually make the change, as well as to be happier six months later. Apparently, chance might be more in tune with our best interests than we are.

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Coin flips may also be a tool for helping us understand what we actually want. “The problem is, we can’t know if we’ll regret any choice until after we’ve made it and committed to it,” says Michael Norton, a professor who studies consumer psychology and decision making at Harvard Business School. Therefore, making decisions using a random determinant like a coin flip, he says, could offer a kind of “middle ground.” “Coin flips are not binding, and so we can learn from our emotional reaction to this kind of ‘pseudo-commitment’ about which choice we might regret more.” In other words, a “no” from a decision maker might make it clearer that we really wanted a “yes.”

Another decision making device from Ben Sisto's collection.Aram Boghosian

Sisto isn’t using his collection to make big decisions — when he moved to Providence from New York recently, he didn’t ask the Radio Shack Executive Decision Maker, or the wizard, whether he should go for it. He only uses his collection to make trivial decisions — whether to go for a walk, or get an iced coffee.

To Sisto, outsourcing those small choices to a decision maker represents an escape from the algorithmic barrage of modern life, where corporations use data to give us ever-more-tailored predictions of what we will enjoy watching, seeing, and doing. With his decision makers, he says, “it feels less like a person or a corporation whose interests I distrust is telling me where to go.”

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Among the dozens of objects in his collection, Sisto has his favorites. For example, he doesn’t put much faith in the Magic 8 Ball — it’s too much of a cultural icon. He prefers using those that feel like his own personal discovery, such as the beautiful Japanese woodpecker on a pole. When you pull its head back, it taps its way down the pole into slots marked either “yes” or “no.” It’s the lack of interpretation that makes them deserve the name decision makers, and their place in his collection. “I think that I just want a real answer,” he says. “It’s just ‘yes or no, agree or disagree.’ If you put your trust in this device, there’s a fork in the road.”


Josie Thaddeus-Johns is a freelance arts and culture writer based between Cambridge and Berlin. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.