“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