Less than 0.3 Seconds. 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 trajectory. He must act before the ball is kicked. 1/3 of the time soccer players aim at the middle of the goal, one third at the left and another one third 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 jeopardize saving these goals? The simple answer: 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 what we call the action bias: my topic for today, the tendency to do something, to look active, rather than to do nothing, even if it there's no real benefit, or probably, counterproductive!
So what accounts for this tendency? In our old hunter-gatherer environment, lightning-fast reactions were essential to survival; deliberation could be fatal. When our ancestors saw a silhouette that looked a lot like a sabre-tooth tiger – they did not wait too long to run. We are the descendants of these quick responders. Back then, it was better to run away once too often. However, our world today is different; it also rewards reflection, even though our instincts may suggest otherwise.
But the trick is knowing when to take action and when to wait and do nothing. This is usually about the degree of clarity of the situation in question. Take an example when you're waiting in the grocery line. I would, for one, choose the shortest queue. But perhaps, not long after I decided to change line, I wasted more time than if I'd have waited patiently in the first place, because I made a decision not based on a complete understanding of the situation. When considering my next move, we should ask ourselves: “Do I understand all the important aspects of this situation?” If the answer is “no”, perhaps don’t do anything. Thinking about what seems to be really happening can help you make a better decision – one that is more likely to work out well. We may not always realize it but it can feel so satisfying to take action instead of doing nothing.
Action bias is mostly encountered in a new situation. In the financial market, for example, when starting out, many investors act rashly: they can’t yet judge the stock market so they compensate with a sort of hyperactivity. Successful investing is supposed to be a patient, mindful, non-emotional activity with long period of inaction. You choose what you'd like to invest in, analyze the market, you buy, then you'd wait. When the time comes, you exit. In fact, one well-known 2009 study by Eugene Fama at the University of Chicago shows that the more you trade, the more likely your returns can easily be eaten up by the costs incurred. This is a case where reflection, instead of action, is actually rewarding.
Many people, including some business leaders and self-help experts, often argue it’s better to take action and show initiative instead of doing nothing. But sometimes this can be far from the truth. So, though it might not merit a parade in your honour, if a situation is unclear, hold back until you can assess your options. Blaise Pascal once said ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ And he said this in a room, alone.