In a penalty situation in soccer, the ball takes less than 0.3 seconds to travel from the player who kicks the ball to the goal. There is not enough time for the goalkeeper to watch the ball’s direction. He must take a decision before the ball is kicked. Soccer players who take penalty kicks shoot one third of the time at the middle of the goal, one third of the time at the left, and one third of the time at the right. Surely goalkeepers have spotted this, but what do they do? They dive either to the left or to the right. Rarely do they stay standing in the middle, even though roughly a third of all balls land there. Why on earth would they jeopardise saving these penalties? The simple answer: appearance. It looks more impressive and feels less embarrassing to dive to the wrong side than to freeze on the spot and watch the ball sail past.
This is the action bias: look active, even if it achieve nothing.
This study comes from the Israeli researcher Michael Bar-Eli, who evaluated hundreds of penalty shoot-outs. But not just goalkeepers fall victim to the action bias. Suppose a group of youths exist a nightclub and begins to argue, shouting at each. The situation is close to escalating into an all-out fight. The police is the area monitoring the scene from a distance hold back and intervene only when the first casualty appear.
The action bias exists even in the most educated circles. If a patient’s illness cannot yet be diagnosed with certainty, and doctors must choose between intervening (i.e. prescribing something) or waiting and seeing, they are prone to taking action. Such decisions have nothing to do with profiteering or professional misconduct, but rather with the human tendency to want to do anything but sit and wait n the face of uncertainty.
Traditionally our fore-fathers have always been reacting to any slight movement they encountered. When they saw a shadow appear at the edge of the forest, something that looked like an animal, they did not take time to reflect on what that may be. They hit the road and fast.
Although we now value time to reflect more highly, outright inaction remains a cardinal sin. You get no honour, no medal, no statue with your name on it if you make exactly the right decision by waiting, for the good of the company, the government, even humanity. It is as if waiting is synonymous with incompetence. When a person opts to wait and think things through, or using the phrase “let me sleep on it”, that is a sign of weakness. People want to make urgent decisions, making business decisions as if walking into a clothing store and buying a shirt. If you demonstrate decisiveness and quick judgement, and the situation improves (though perhaps coincidentally), its quite possible your boss, or business partner, will shake your hand. Society still prefers rash action to a sensible wait-and-see strategy.
In conclusion: in new or uncertain circumstances, we feel compelled to do something, anything. Afterward we feel better, even if we have made things worse by acting too quickly or too often. So, though it might not merit a parade in your honour, if a situation is unclear, hold back until you can assess your options.
‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,’ wrote Blaise Pascal. At home, in his study.