Action Bias: Why Waiting and Watching Is Torture

Action Bias or Do Something Syndrome is the outcome of our tendency to always do something by intervening when, in fact things should be left as they are.

For example, If a business competitor has launched a new feature, we cannot just sit and do nothing. We have to call meetings, organise war rooms, find ways to make sure that we launch a better feature in record time.

This bias is a mix of a lack of patience and a strong desire to intervene without thinking, or even considering the possibility of a downside. Knowing about this bias would help you understand that there are better methods than always defaulting to action.

Let’s take another example. If you visit a doctor with a throat infection, the doctor would intervene and prescribe you some painkillers or, run some tests or worse, recommend surgery, rather than wait and see if the body heals on its own in a couple of days.

It has nothing to do with profiteering. It has everything to do with the human tendency to do just about anything than sit still and wait in the face of uncertainty.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls these people interventionistas. Often these people come armed with solutions to solve the first order consequences of a decision. But create worse second and subsequent order consequences.

In his famous book Antifragile, he gives a classic example:

“In the 1930s, 389 children were presented to New York City doctors; 174 of them were recommended tonsillectomies. The remaining 215 children were again presented to doctors, and 99 were said to need the surgery. When the remaining 116 children were shown to yet a third set of doctors, 52 were recommended the surgery. Note that a death occurs in about every 15,000 such operations. Every child who undergoes an unnecessary operation has a shortening of her life expectancy.”

In medical terms, such a phenomenon is called Iatrogenesis, which means causing unintentional harm while trying to help. A famous example of iatrogenesis is the death of George Washington. In 1799, as he lay dying from a bacterial infection, his well-intentioned doctors aided or hastened his death using the standard treatment at the time, which was bloodletting.

Often in new or shaky circumstances, we feel compelled to do something, anything. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

But it’s not as easy as it seems. Even if you value contemplation over action, outright inaction always remains a cardinal sin. You get no honour, no medal, no statue with your name on it if you make exactly the right decision by waiting—for the good of your team, your company, or even humanity.

On the other hand, if you demonstrate decisiveness and quick judgment, and the situation coincidentally improves, it’s quite possible your boss, or even the president, will shake your hand. Society at large still prefers rash action to a sensible wait-and-see strategy.

In soccer, it’s common knowledge that the penalty shoots are one third of the time at the middle of the goal, one third of the time at the left, and one third of the time at the right. The goalkeeper has a good chance of catching the ball just by standing in the middle rather than diving in the wrong direction. Yet, they jump.

Why on earth does he do that? Because 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.

It’s all about appearances. And this tendency is the crux of Action Bias. Look active, even if it achieves nothing. Because the optics of doing nothing has consequences.

It will appear to your colleagues and to your boss that you’re incompetent or lazy. You always have an incentive to be seen as doing something even if the costs of taking action are high.

For example, in response to a new product from a competitor, the first question people usually ask is “What are we going to do about this?” The hidden assumption is that you need to do something. Rarely do we even consider that the cost of doing something might outweigh the benefits.

What you have to understand is that direction is more important than blind movement. Thoughtless action is worse than inaction. In the words of the great Charlie Munger, you need “…discipline in avoiding just doing any damn thing just because you can’t stand inactivity.”

The key lesson here is that if we are to intervene, we need a solid idea of not only the benefits of our interventions but also the harm we may cause. We need to engage ourselves in second- and third-order thinking, and measure both the upside and the downside.

Try to understand this: doing nothing is tough. But doing something isn’t the same as getting results. It can often be the opposite as well. If you understand this, and if you can implement this, you’ll have a strong chances of avoiding a lot of misery. As Warren Buffett says:

“Holding cash is uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as doing something stupid.”

We often convince ourselves that our only options are to do something or to do nothing. We forget the third option, that is gathering more information. We’d be much better off if we stop for a moment and gather more information before acting.

So, the next time you feel the urge to do something for the sake of doing something remember what the philosopher Henry David Thoreau said:

“It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
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