An “Action Bias” Can Be Counterproductive
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
In a Wall Street Journal article, Staats (2018) writes, “we have an action bias: We would rather be seen doing something than doing nothing.”
In a 2007 study, researchers analyzed 286 professional soccer penalty kicks. They discovered that goalkeepers almost always jump right or left because the norm is to jump — a preference for action (”action bias”). The goalkeepers jumped to the left 49.3% of the time, to the right 44.4% of the time, but stayed in the center only 6.3% of the time. Analysis revealed that the kicks went to the left 32.2%, to the right 39.2% and to the center 28.7% of the time. This means that the goalkeepers were much more likely to stop a kick if they had just stayed put.
In 93.7% of the kicks, the goalkeepers elected to jump to the right or left. When goalkeepers stayed in the center, they had a 33.3% chance of stopping a penalty kick, whereas they had 14.2% chance if they jumped to the left or 12.6% chance if they jumped to the right. Even though it would have been better (based on the current distribution of kicks in the study) for the goalkeepers to stay in the center, they almost always jumped to one of the sides (Bar-Eli, Azar, Ritov, Keidar-Levin, & Schein, 2007).
When the researchers asked why, the goalkeepers responded that they would regret allowing a goal more if they remained in the center than if they dived to the right or left. Put it another way, the goalkeepers wanted to be seen to be doing something, even if that something was wrong (Staats, 2018).
“[G]oalkeepers feel worse about a goal being scored following inaction (staying in the center) than following action (jumping), which can lead them to jump to the sides more often than is optimal” (Bar-Eli, Azar, Ritov, Keidar-Levin, & Schein, 2007).
There are two important lessons to learn from this that can be applied to the workplace. The first lesson is from FYI: For Your Improvement, a guide for coaching and development. In it, Lombardo and Eichinger (2009) remind us about being overly action-oriented, and that one consequence of overusing or over relying on an action-oriented mentality is that we tend to push for solutions without doing an adequate analysis.
The second lesson is about exercising good impulse control. The ability to think before you act, being deliberate, and surveying a situation is part of impulse control (the ability to resist or delay the impulse to act), an important factor in the Bar-On Model of Emotional-Social Intelligence (Bar-On, 2006; Multi-Health Systems, 2011). Individuals who lack or are low in impulse control will often act now and think later. They tend to be overactive, impatient, and leap before they look.
Impulse control is one of the more difficult emotional intelligence skills to develop as a teenager or adult if you don’t develop it earlier on in life. This is because surrendering to our impulses is often reinforced in the short term by getting something we want, feeling a release of tension, or some other benefit (Kanoy, 2013).
“Individuals with effective impulse control, by contrast, have the capacity to think first rather than responding reflexively. It allows them mental space for weighing alternatives and assessing options so that their actions and expressions are reasoned and well considered. This leads to wise decision-making and responsible behavior” (Stein & Book, 2006, p. 206-207).
In her LinkedIn Learning video titled, “Transitioning from Manager to Leader,” Sara Canaday (a leadership speaker and executive coach), said:
“Leaders think carefully about the impact of their decisions on the company, the bottom line, the customers, the employees, even the competitors. What’s the immediate impact? What are the long-term implications and consequences? Leaders are decisive and courageous in their decision-making but they also know when to strategically pause if a delay provides an advantage. Sometimes, there’s genius in waiting [emphasis added]. For new information, for a competitor’s announcement, for a technological advance, that pause could prove to be priceless.”
Takeaway: There are times when it is absolutely critical to slow down—even stop—and understand the situation. When you do that, you’ll learn sometimes the smartest move is to actually not move at all.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Bar-Eli, M., Azar, O. H., Ritov, I., Keidar-Levin, Y., & Schein, G. (2007). Action Bias Among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers: The Case of Penalty Kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28(5), 606-621.
Bar-On, R. (2006). The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI). Psicothema, 18, supl., 13-25.
Kanoy, K. (2013). The Everything Parent’s Guide to Emotional Intelligence in Children. Avon, MA: Adams Media.
Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2009). FYI: For Your Improvement: A Guide for Development and Coaching (5th ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Lominger International.
Multi-Health Systems. (2011). EQ-i 2.0 Emotional Quotient Inventory 2.0 User’s Handbook. North Tonawanda, NY: Multi-Health Systems.
Staats, B. R. (2018, July 6). Don’t Just Dive Into Action: Stop to Think First. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-just-dive-into-action-stop-to-think-first-1530888843
Stein, S. J., & Book, H. E. (2006). The EQ Edge: Emotional intelligence and your success. Mississauga, ON: Jossey-Bass.