On action bias

It's the final of the World Cup, and you're the goalkeeper hoping to save the game-deciding penalty. As the opposition player steps up, you have a choice—jump to the right, jump to the left, or stay put. The player doesn't have a history of taking penalties. Which direction do you choose?

One research paper suggests that staying in the center is the best strategy in this situation. This may seem surprising, but it turns out that goalkeepers stay in the center far less frequently (only 6% of the time) than penalty kicks that are directed toward the center (30% of the time). There's a simple reason for this—action bias.

We tend to view a goalkeeper's failure to save a penalty while staying rooted to the middle as worse than their choice to dive left or right, even if the outcome is similarly negative. In other words, we prefer failed action to failed inaction from a goalkeeper. This reinforces their desire to choose a direction, even when it is less than optimal.

Action bias isn’t just prevalent in sporting situations; it’s ubiquitous in our culture. We seem to think that a bias for action is inherently virtuous. We often revere busyness, regardless of the activity it involves. Some social media gurus tell us to hustle and get into the habit of doing things, as if doing more will magically solve all our problems.

My experience tells me that this is a half-baked idea. Action without sufficient consideration for direction can be counterproductive. For a while, taking action and doing things can satisfy the need for progress by providing the illusion of control. But unless you get lucky, it’s unlikely to last.

A bias for action is effective only when combined with direction. This doesn’t mean that you need to know exactly where you are headed. Life is a series of trials and errors to learn from. However, it does mean that you should deliberately choose the directions in which you apply your actions. One way to be deliberate is to do things that align with your own values, rather than adopting them from others without examination.

Counterintuitively, activities that may appear to be inaction on the surface can actually be the wise choice in certain situations. Contemplating the consequences of action versus inaction, taking a momentary deep breath, and practicing meditation are all ways to mindfully slow things down so that when you do take an action, it’s an intentional one.

What are some areas of life where you tend to bias toward reflexive action? How might you engage in thoughtful inaction instead?