Action Bias: Why It’s So Hard To Stay in the Same Line at the Supermarket

Do you ever find yourself jumping from one line to another at the supermarket, only to find out you would have been better in the original line?

Many times throughout your life, you will find yourself asking the question, “Should I do something about this?” Almost as many times, you will find yourself answering in the affirmative. This is the action bias in action and it is not always your friend.

What is the action bias?

Also known as the Do Something Syndrome, the action bias describes our innate tendency to respond to situations by taking some kind of action, even when we have no evidence that it will lead to a better outcome and might even make things worse.

The seminal study

Environmental scientist Anthony Patt and economist Richard Zeckhauser were the first to describe the potential downsides of our bias toward action. In their paper,[1] they focused on environmental policymaking, creating several surveys in which students and members of the public were asked to make decisions on reducing air and water pollution, resource conservation, and donations of endangered species to a zoo.

Analysis of the results led them to conclude that decision-makers have a bias for taking action even if it makes the situation slightly worse, and that this bias is even stronger if the decision-maker is acting as an agent for other people. In that case, they also tend to choose actions for which they are likely to receive the most credit. So, for example, politicians — who need to make their actions clear to voters who cannot actually see what they are doing — will often pass showy but ineffective policies in order to give the impression that something is being done, even if nothing useful will come of it. As Aristotle once said, “In the arena of human life, the honors and rewards fall to those who show their good qualities in action.”

The more oft-quoted study[2] on the action bias was carried out by Israeli psychologist Michael Bar-Eli and a team of colleagues seven years later and involved soccer. In soccer, statistics show that about a third of the penalty kicks will be hit to the left, a third to the right, and a third will be kicked to the middle of the goal. The probability of preventing a goal is therefore greatest if the keeper stays in the goal’s center during the kick. However, when the researchers analyzed 286 penalty kicks in various soccer games in top leagues and championships around the world, they found that in 93.7% of the cases the goalkeepers chose to dive to their left or their right. Why? Because the norm is for goalkeepers to jump to one of the sides, it feels less embarrassing to dive to the side — like everyone else — and watch the ball go into the opposite corner of the goal, than to stay on the spot and watch the ball sail past.

How it works

Patt and Zeckhauser identified three possible reasons for our predilection for action. For a start, taking immediate action was probably beneficial for the survival of our ancient ancestors, so the habit has been hardwired into us over the millennia. However, though this impulse was once incredibly adaptive, our environment and lifestyles have evolved in such a way that the action bias is no longer necessary for our survival.

However, as Patt and Zeckhauser point out, “Those who act are still rewarded above those who do not.” This leads them to conclude that we also tend to engage in action in order to show others what we are capable of, in the hopes that we will get some recognition or reward. Indeed, society tends to view action as preferable to inaction; action creates value but “The devil makes work for idle hands.”

Even when the decision to act doesn’t work out as we’d hoped, we can rationalize that it would have been worse if we’d done nothing. “At least I did something” we can say, or “I did my best, I couldn’t have done more.” And our statements will be viewed positively by others who rarely if ever reply with “Yes, but you’d have been better off if you’d done nothing.” People who value thought over action and stand idly by while letting good things happen do not get kudos and recognition because thought cannot be seen and the outcome of doing nothing cannot be measured. Decisiveness and quick judgment can be seen, however, and should the situation coincidentally improve, credit and reward will ensue.

Finally, Patt and Zeckhauser suggest that we may be taking action in order to learn from it. That way we can make more informed decisions should we encounter a similar situation in the future. As the Chinese philosopher and diplomat Tehyi Hsieh once famously said, “Action will remove the doubt that theory cannot solve.” The clearer the link between actions and consequences, the greater the learning.

Whatever the reasons for our ingrained need to act, humanity’s general discomfort with inaction is evident everywhere, from the supermarket shopper who jumps impatiently from one queue to another only to end up being slower to check out than they would have been if they’d just stayed put, to the doctor who decides to run a battery of tests on a patient who has minor and undiagnosed symptoms rather than just scheduling a follow-up appointment to see if those symptoms have changed.[3]

It was particularly obvious during the coronavirus pandemic when thousands of people found it impossible to follow official guidance to stay at home and not hoard toilet paper and pasta and were berated by government ministers who were themselves busy undertaking a flurry of actions — not necessarily supported by science — to show the populace that they were busy doing something about the dreaded disease.

To make things worse, we have a tendency to attribute causality to our actions, and the more optimistic we are, the more likely we are to believe that bad outcomes are the result of bad luck and outside interference, and good outcomes are the result of our sound judgment.

Overconfidence makes things even worse. Nowhere is this more obvious than in financial markets, where overconfidence causes people — notably, men — to trade too frequently because they are certain that their accurate predictions of stock price fluctuations will lead to lucrative outcomes. When behavioral finance professors Brad Barber and Terrance Odean analyzed the trades made at a large American discount stock broker between 1991 to 1996, they found that the traders who traded the most earned an 11.4 percent annual return, whereas the market itself returned 17.9 percent. The average portfolio saw a 75 percent annual turnover, and it was the transaction costs that proved most disastrous. In hindsight, the better strategy would have been to let the stocks grow on their own.[4]

Of course, everyone is different. We all have a different propensity for action because we all vary in our need for control: those with a greater need for control feel better when they take action because they feel they have the ability to improve their circumstances, whereas doing nothing makes them feel like they’ve given up. People who are more proactive and view action as the normal reaction to unfavorable events also tend to feel less regret than others who are less proactive when a decision to act ends poorly.[5]

Those among us who have suffered negative past experiences due to inaction are more likely to feel that we must act the next time we find ourselves facing a predicament in order to avoid another failure.[6] Additionally, research shows that we are more likely to regret the actions that lead to bad consequences in the short term, whereas in the long-term, we are more likely to regret inaction.[7]

How to avoid it

The action bias is deeply ingrained and thus difficult to avoid. Although it can often work in our favor, sometimes the best course of action is to stop, think things over, and only act if a concrete plan comes to mind. As philosopher Henry David Thoreau put it, “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

In the end, the best thing you can probably do in uncertain situations is to choose a lack of action. Chinese Taoists have had a name for this: “wu wei” — “non action” or “action without action” — which is the practice of taking no action that goes against the natural course of the universe. In other words, just going with the flow.

This kind of patience requires practice and self-control, which can be challenging to develop. But it will pay off. You could start small by choosing a queue at the supermarket and staying in it, and gradually build up until you can follow the path of wu wei and choose not to act in more challenging situations, like when you see that the price of your shares has dropped. According to Warren Buffett’s closest partner and right-hand man, Charlie Munger, he and Buffet owe their success to “…a certain discipline in terms of not doing some foolish thing just to be active — discipline in avoiding just doing any damn thing just because you can’t stand inactivity.” He and Buffet are both billionaires. Sometimes it really pays to leave things alone.

References:

  1. “Action Bias and Environmental Decisions” by Anthony Patt and Richard Zeckhauser, July 2000, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty.
    DOI: 10.1023/A:1026517309871
  2. “Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks” by Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer H. Azar, Ilana Ritov, Yael Keidar-Levin and Galit Schein, 25 January 2007, Journal of Economic Psychology.
    DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2006.12.001
  3. “Unexplained complaints in primary care: evidence of action bias” by Alexander Kiderman, Uri Ilan, Itzhak Gur, Tali Bdolah-Abram and Mayer Brezis, August 2013, The Journal of family practice.
    PMID: 24143333
  4. “Volume, Volatility, Price, and Profit When Traders Are Above Average” by Terrance Odean, 17 December 2002, The Journal of Finance.
    DOI: 10.1111/0022-1082.00078
  5. “At Least I Tried: The Relationship between Regulatory Focus and Regret Following Action vs. Inaction” by Adi Itzkin, Dina Van Dijk and Ofer H. Azar, 27 October 2016, Frontiers in psychology.
    DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01684
  6. Zeelenberg, M., van de Bos, K., van Dijk, E., & Pieters, R. (2002). The inaction effect in the psychology of regret. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82(3), 314-327.
  7. “The experience of regret: What, when, and why”by Thomas Gilovich, Medvec and Victoria Husted, 1995, Psychological Review.
    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.102.2.379

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