Why do we prefer doing something to doing nothing?
Action Bias, explained.
What is the Action Bias?
The action bias describes our tendency to favor action over inaction, often to our benefit. However, there are times when we feel compelled to act, even if there’s no evidence that it will lead to a better outcome than doing nothing would. Our tendency to respond with action as a default, automatic reaction, even without solid rationale to support it, has been termed the action bias.
Where this bias occurs
Suppose you’re a soccer goalkeeper, preparing to block a penalty kick in the midst of an important game. If you’re like most goalies, when attempting to stop a penalty kick you’ll jump to either the left or right nearly every time. Yet your chances of successfully blocking the kick are statistically greater if you simply stay still.1
So, what compels you to jump, instead of standing your ground? It’s the action bias, the notion that doing something is better than doing nothing. You may feel that people would judge your failure to make the save less harshly if you could prove that you made an attempt to stop it. Unfortunately, as counterintuitive as it feels, in this case, it’s inaction that increases your odds of success.
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Prioritizing action over inaction, without sufficient reasoning to support it, can lead to mishandling of a situation. It’s an automatic response, based upon impulse instead of logic. Since it’s a decision made without taking all possible information into consideration, the action bias can cause us to go down a less effective route, which can compromise the outcome of the situation.
As a society, we view inaction as wrong, and continued engagement in the action bias only serves to propagate this belief. Even if the decision to act doesn’t pan out as we’d hoped, we can rationalize that it would have been worse if we’d done nothing, even though that very well might not have been the case. This serves to reinforce our view of action as superior to inaction, which in turn allows for the continuation of this pattern of poor decision-making.
An example of a systematic challenge due to the action bias was brought to light by Patt and Zeckhauser. They authored one of the earliest papers on the action bias (2000),2 in which they outlined certain areas affected by it. In particular, they focused on policy-making. They described how, in order to make a salient impression, politicians will often pass showy — but relatively ineffective — environmental policies. Such action gives the impression that something is being done, when, in actuality, the effects are minimal. Our bias towards action may result in us applauding these empty actions, even though no real progress is being made.
Why it happens
“The devil makes work for idle hands” is an old expression that emphasizes the notion that staying busy will keep you out of trouble. It’s just one example of how we consider a lack of action to be wrong. Such notions predate the development of the concept of the action bias by centuries. Although this bias is nothing new, the theory behind it was only developed recently. Thus, there are many things that we still don’t fully understand about it. Despite these limitations, researchers have found some evidence for what context gives rise to the action bias.
Is it learned or innate?
Thousands of years ago, immediate action was required in order for survival. It’s been suggested that our tendency towards action is something hardwired into us from our history as hunter-gatherers.3
This automatic impulse is a survival instinct that was once incredibly adaptive. Due to the ways in which our environment and lifestyle have evolved, the action bias is less necessary for survival than it once was. That being said, those who act are still rewarded above those who do not. For example, students who participate in class are often praised above those who choose to remain quiet. This reinforces our instinct to act, causing us to engage in this behavior more, thereby making it habitual. Unfortunately, this makes us more likely to respond with action in situations better suited to inaction.
Not only does providing reward for action propagate the action bias, but so does punishing inaction. It’s also been shown that people who have had negative past experiences due to inaction are more likely to engage in the action bias.4
This regret mobilizes us to act in order to avoid another failure. Unfortunately, this can backfire if we find ourselves biased towards action in a situation where the best response is for us to do nothing.
To sum up, while it’s likely that part of why we engage in the action bias has to do with innate human instincts for survival, these instincts wouldn’t be maintained without the learning patterns of reinforcement and punishment that we experience throughout our lives.
Personal characteristics and the action bias
Our propensity for action also stems from our need to be in control. By taking action, we feel as though we’re actually doing something to forward ourselves or to better our situation. Actively doing something makes us feel as though we have the capacity to change things, while doing nothing makes us feel like we’ve given up, and have accepted that we can do nothing more. Essentially, action makes us feel better about ourselves than inaction, which serves as reinforcement for this behavior.
Furthermore, overconfidence has been tied to committing the action bias. While in some cases, we take action in order to regain our sense of control over the situation, in others, we take action because we feel that we have significant control over the outcome. Consider the financial market, where overconfidence causes people to trade frequently, as they’re certain that their decisions will lead to lucrative outcomes. Specifically, this tends to occur in uncertain situations, when people attempt to predict which stocks will rise or fall. Their confidence in their ability to make such predictions incites them into action. Granted, in these cases action may pay-off but, often, it’s discovered after the fact that it may have been better to take a more hands-off approach.5
Why it is important
We equate taking action and keeping busy with productivity, another quality we assign significant value to. However, a lack of action often proves to be more productive than taking action. Imagine being in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a highway. You might find yourself frustrated at the fact that you’re moving at a snail’s pace, and consider getting off at the first exit to take another route to your destination. This could wind up taking even longer than staying on the busy highway would have, and could cause you to use more gas. While logic tells us that staying on the highway is more efficient, we feel that getting off of the highway is the more efficient decision. This is because, when we sit in traffic, we feel like we’re getting nowhere, while on the other route we’re able to drive at a reasonable speed. Here, taking action is actually less productive than deciding to stay put, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
Being aware of the action bias allows us to be more productive by making decisions based on the most efficient solution. The action bias can cloud our judgements but, by being cognizant of its effects, we can work to overcome it. This allows us to evaluate situations more effectively and recognize when our impulse to act is misplaced.
How to avoid it
Choosing inaction over action doesn’t mean giving up. As a matter of fact, it’s frequently more productive to do so. Consequently, it’s necessary to avoid the action bias, so that action doesn’t continue to be our default response. Choosing a lack of action is a good practice in patience, which can be challenging to develop. Self-control is a skill that needs to be cultivated and the more we work on it, the stronger it gets.
Learning to avoid the action bias is a long-term process that involves going against ingrained impulses and predispositions. Unless the situation demands immediate action, it’s often better to take a step back and evaluate the pros and cons of each possible response. To refer back to the example of being stuck in traffic, instead of becoming frustrated and getting off the highway at the first possible exit, sit for a moment and rationalize your situation. Taking a pause to think through the consequences of action versus inaction can help you support, or find fault with, your initial urge to act.
Remember, the goal here is not to eliminate action as a response altogether. The point is to give equal consideration to inaction as a possible response, and to avoid automatically resorting to action. Doing so will allow for more effective decision-making and more profitable outcomes.
How it all started
Patt and Zeckhauser are pioneers in the study of the action bias, having published their theoretical and empirical exploration of the bias in 2000.6 Their paper defined the action bias as “a penchant for action [that is] a product of nonrational behavior”. They were some of the first to suggest that our proclivity for action is a heuristic, a tool which is often useful, but can unfortunately lead to poor decision-making in a variety of circumstances.
Importantly, they developed an initial reasoning for why the action bias happens. Three reasons were proposed. The first is that it’s partially due to evolutionary and experiential reinforcements, which have led us to view action as a means to survival. Additionally, they suggested that we engage in action in order to offer some form of evidence as to our capabilities, in hopes of some recognition or reward. Finally, they supposed that taking action helps us to learn about the situation and permits for more informed decision-making should we encounter a similar situation in the future.
Example 1 - Difficult diagnoses
The action bias regularly manifests in the health sector, specifically, when it comes to treating patients with unusual symptom presentations that doesn't seem to require urgent care. It’s been shown that, if there’s no clear diagnosis, the majority of doctors prefer to run tests to attempt to find the root of the problem, rather than schedule a follow-up to see if symptoms have changed.7
This is an example of the action bias, as these patients don’t present with symptoms that require emergency treatment. It would be less costly and less time consuming to schedule a follow-up appointment than it would be to run a full workup, yet doctors tend towards the latter. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact, many patients likely appreciate having their concerns validated in such a way. Regardless, this is still exemplary of the action bias, as it demonstrates a preference for action over inaction in the absence of a true rationale for doing so.
Example 2 - Investing
There is an abundance of examples of the action bias to be found in the realm of investments. Many factors can trigger this bias. As mentioned previously, overconfidence and a desire for control are both leading causes of the action bias. Excessive confidence in one’s ability to make good decisions with a guaranteed positive outcome can lead to over-trading. Similarly, a desire to maintain control over your investments might lead you to trade more frequently than you should. However, it’s been found that, in general, self-control makes for a far better strategy, and patience pays off where over-trading doesn’t.
Panic can also lead us to resort to the action bias. Checking your portfolio regularly is a maintenance factor for the action bias, as it brings all changes to your attention. Upon noticing a slight dip in value, you may rashly decide to sell before matters worsen. Often, these drops in value are only temporary, and things right themselves on their own. While taking action might feel like the best form of damage control, it can cost you in the long-term.
What it is
In situations where the correct decision is unclear, our automatic response tends to be based in action, ignoring the potential benefits of inaction.
Why it happens
The action bias was once evolutionarily adaptive and, as such, the impulse to act is hardwired in us as a means of survival. Patterns of reinforcement and punishments experienced throughout our lives cause us to continue to engage in this behavior. Other factors contribute to the maintenance of the action bias, including prior experiences where inaction caused us to fail. Additionally, overconfidence in our ability to predict a favorable outcome and our desire to feel in control over our circumstances both lead us to engage in the action bias with greater frequency.
Example 1 - Difficult diagnoses
When meeting with a patient who presents with unusual symptoms that are difficult to diagnose, but don’t seem to be posing any immediate threat to their wellbeing, doctors tend to engage in the action bias by choosing to run a full workup, rather than scheduling a follow-up appointment.
Example 2 - Investing
Factors such as panic, overconfidence, and a desire for control can lead us to make poor decisions when it comes to our investments. It can result in us over-trading or selling low. These decisions result from the action bias, as we feel compelled to do something, instead of patiently working towards a future goal.
How to avoid it
Avoiding the action bias requires us to unlearn our impulse to respond with action in ambiguous situations. If possible, instead of reacting automatically, we should consider the consequences of both action and inaction and compare their effectiveness. Doing so permits us to engage in more informed decision-making.