Bias For Action

I have a bias for action.

When a problem crops up, I quickly gather information and compare potential solutions. I use decisions-making tools to avoid paralysis by analysis. To no surprise to anyone who has worked with me before, I want to do something.

My bias for action can be a strength when others are uncertain about making a decision but I sometimes exhibit the Do Something syndrome.

The Do Something syndrome, also called the action bias, is the tendency to favor action over inaction, even if there’s incomplete evidence that the action will lead to a better outcome than doing nothing. This bias for action is a survival instinct, hardwired from our history as hunter-gatherers.

As a society, we view inaction as a sign of weakness and encourage doers. For example, students who actively participate in class are often praised more than those who remain quiet, regardless of whether they are better learners. When a business competitor launches a new product, we organize emergency meetings (often called war rooms) and spend time figuring out how to respond, rather than focusing on our own priorities. Leaders of poorly performing divisions who reorganize are characterized as courageous, even if rearranging boxes on org charts rarely improves performance.

Even if the action doesn’t produce the result we hoped for, we rationalize it would have been worse if we had done nothing – even though that may not have been the case. Coupled with praise from others, it reinforces the bias for action.

One compelling example is from soccer. When trying to stop a penalty kick, goalies almost always dive to the left or right. However, research has shown the probability of successfully blocking a kick is statistically greater if the goalie doesn’t move. Inaction leads to a better result than action.

For most people, the bias for action stems from our need to be in control. Actively doing something makes us feel we have the capacity to change things. Doing nothing can feel like we’ve given up. Action makes us feel better about ourselves, reinforcing the behavior.

The bias for action is also tied to an overconfidence in our abilities. We think we can fix something so we have to try. We believe our actions have more impact on outcomes than they actually do and forget about unintended consequences

So how do we temper the bias for action?

The key is self-recognition. If you’re prone to spring into action whenever a problem arises, resist your initial temptations and authentically consider the option of doing nothing. In some cases, waiting will allow you to gather more information to make a better decision.

However, I’m not advocating for always kicking the can down the road. If you struggle to make decisions because you experience decision quicksand, having a stronger bias for action will usually benefit you. As the saying goes, not making a decision is still making a decision.

Like all biases, make sure you understand your own tendency for action or inaction, and adjust your behavior accordingly.

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2 Responses to Bias For Action

  1. Aiaz Kazi November 14, 2021 at 12:31 pm #

    I have been called a late binder (programming term that may have become obsolete these days.) Late binding does attempt to provide a “let’s wait till we have all the information possible, to the very last minute” which is OK when you are compiling a program since the binding happens at the very end of the compile process. In business terms it can be misused to kick the can down if you move the timeline to make the decision. If one holds true on the timeline to make the decision I’ve found that this does work in enterprises. Testing it for my startup these days… Will know more in the next few months(my gut says it won’t work since the bias for action is strong in a startup…would be glad to have my gut be wrong)

  2. Gaurav Jaiswal November 14, 2021 at 5:12 pm #

    Thanks for another well thought out blog Jonathan. This strongly resonates with my own bias for action as well and I agree that “sometimes” waiting it out might be a better option.

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