The Action Bias: Looking active, even if it’s achieving nothing

It’s always good to remind yourself of this…

On average, a soccer penalty kick takes .3 seconds for the ball to travel from where it is placed to the back of the net.

0.3 seconds…

Without any time to react, goalkeepers must choose to save the ball in one of three areas: left, right, or down the middle.

RARELY do we see goalkeepers stand in the middle and not dive to either side.

Michael Bar-Eli, an Israeli researcher, assessed hundreds of penalty kicks from professional soccer matches. He was curious if more players kicked the ball to the left, to the right, or down the middle.

Where do you think most kicks landed?

His research found that penalty kicks are to the right 1/3 of the time, to the left 1/3 of the time, and down the middle 1/3 of the time. No matter where the goalkeeper dove, they had an equal chance of saving the ball.

So, professional soccer players are smart, right? They know that whatever decision they make, they’ll save the ball 33.3% of the time…so why do we RARELY see goalkeepers stand in the middle?

A common explanation is because it “looks” more impressive to exert effort and dive and miss, rather than stand still and “look” like you’re not doing anything.

It’s all about appearance — otherwise known as the…

Action Bias: Looking active, even if it’s achieving nothing.

As stated in the phenomenal book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, even in the most educated groups the action bias occurs. In hospitals, young doctors, whose patients are not getting better, must choose between weighing in (i.e. prescribing more medication) over possibly waiting and getting more information as they ascertain the situation. They want to act and make a quick decision because it “appears” to be the right thing to do.

Now, a lot of this has to do with the fact that American’s are not comfortable with uncertainty, however, that is another topic for another day.

So for right now, I want you to think back to yourself…How many times have you seen this in the business world?

Why does this matter in business?

We all want to LOOK like we’re busy, and we all want others to THINK that we’re busy. This is the classic George Costanza sleeping-under-his-desk-to-make-it-appear-he’s-working-late-nights-and-early-mornings-situation.

People fall into this trap because the world rewards individuals who look active even if they’re not achieving anything (ie. the goalkeeper that dives and misses vs. the goalkeeper that stands still and misses). This also means that we reward quick decision makers. If you make a snap decision and something good comes out of it, you’ll get a congratulations from your boss and an affirmation that you did the right thing, even if the foundation of your decision was that you did not want to look inactive.

But always remember this… having a wait-and-see strategy for when a situation is unclear and uncertain, (just like a goalkeeper that stands in the middle waiting for the ball to come to them) may just as well be the right decision even though it’s not the prettiest one.