Our tendency to respond with action as a default (automatic reaction), even without solid rationale to support it, has been termed the action bias. We have an innate tendency tendency to favor action over inaction.
Sitting still feels reckless in a fast-moving world, even in situations where it offers the best odds. Playing dead if a grizzly charges you would be the most successful strategy, but running for your life just feels more practical.
The hysterical widespread response from most of the World Governments to the SARS COV-2 virus has been featured by measures not supported by solid rationality nor scientific evidence, but just driven by the feeling that inaction might be worse. Indeed, in situations where the correct decision is unclear, our automatic response is leant to action, ignoring – by default – the potential benefits of inaction.
A study by Bar-Eli et al. (2007) has analyzed how the action bias works in soccer, when a penalty kick is awarded. In soccer a penalty kick is a contest among the keeper and goal keeper.
The authors examined 331 penalty kicks from top leagues and championships world wide. A panel of three independent judges was used to analyze the direction of the kicks and the direction of the movements by the goalkeeper.
The kicks were equally distributed with one third of the kicks aimed to the left, one third aimed to the right and one third to the left of the goal mouth.
However, the goalkeepers displayed a distinct action bias: they either dive left or right 94% of the time, hardly ever choosing to remain in the middle of their goal mouth.
The researchers, then, calculated the success rate from the combinations of kicks and jumps. The best strategy was when the goalkeeper stayed in the centre of the goal mouth: he saved 60% of the kicks aimed to the centre, far higher than his 30% saving rate when he dived either left or right.
However, far from following the optimal strategy of the centre, goalkeepers would stay in the centre just 6.3% of the time!
The action bias, displayed by the goalkeepers, is clearly a suboptimal behavior pattern.
The reason for this action bias is related to the feeling of effort, that the goalkeeper feel when he dives left or right (the feeling of doing something). Standing in the centre and watching a goal scored to the left or to the right of him, he would feel much worse!!
The action bias is widespread in the field of investment and trading. The bias towards action is one of the strongest forces in business investing for several reasons: 1)the investor would not consider that inaction is also a decision 2) action signals to yourself and others that you’re not oblivious to risks 3)action is the only signal to others that you’re worth your salary (this is true for financial advisors) 4)it can provide the illusion of control in a world where so much is out of your hands 5) action is exciting, inaction is boring. But as Paul Samuelson once opined “Investing should be dull. It should not be exciting. Investing should be more like watching paint dry or watching grass grow“. If you want excitement, take $800 dollars and go to Las Vegas”.
The action bias regularly manifests in the health sector, specifically, when it comes to treating patients with unusual symptoms that do not seem to require urgent care. It’s been shown that – if there’s no clear diagnosis – the majority of doctors prefer to run tests attempting to find the root of the problem, rather than to schedule a follow-up checking if symptoms have changed. The action bias in medicine would lead to Overdiagnosis (and Incidentalomas) and Overtreament.