Thursday, February 21, 2008

Action Bias in Decision Making & Problem Solving

The blogs have been a little sporadic in the last few weeks as I have been in the Middle East running workshops for a series of universities and agencies on how to develop critical and creative thinking, as well as higher levels of problem solving, decision making, greater levels of autonomy and leadership capabilities in students and employees.


Another factor that alters decisions to make a decision (!) ( or what it is that triggers us to make a decision) and contributes to the decisions we make is a phenomena called action bias. Simply put this means that just about everyone, when faced with ambiguous situations, especially those circumstances associated with risk, gets the feeling that they need to take some action regardless of whether this is a good idea or not. This frequently contributes to misjudgments about when to act (usually too soon or in the wrong direction) and misperceptions of the nature of the problem facing them, which means that people not only make decision too soon but they could often, almost always have easily made a better decision if they had an awareness of the unconscious psychological drivers we have to make decisions.

Simply put action bias states that when faced with uncertainty or a problem, particularly an ambiguous problem we prefer to do something, in fact we are happier doing anything, even if it counterproductive, rather than doing nothing, even if doing nothing is the best course of action. Action bias was noticed by Bar Eli et al (2007) in a study of goal keepers behaviour in soccer games when faced with trying to save a penalty. When they analysed where most penalty kickers place the ball on taking the penalty they found that just over 1/3 of the time they shoot for the middle and the remaining times, just under two thirds they aim for either the left or right corner. And yet when faced with the decision of what to do almost all goal keepers prefer to leap either to the left or the right rather than standing in the middle, where on average they are marginally more likely to save more goals. The thinking behind such a decision is that it looks and feels better to have missed the ball by diving (action) in the wrong direction than to have the ignominy of watching the ball go sailing past and never to have moved. Action bias is usually an emotional reaction based on the feeling that ‘I have to do something’ even if I don’t know what to do.

The same often applies in many other situations. In a study of police officers dealing with minor disorder outside of night clubs in the UK for example, it was noticed that when some (a minority of more mature and often more experienced) officers were present at the scene they were much more likely to be tolerant of minor disorder and hang back and not act. Preferring instead to keep an ‘eye on the situation’ when they considered the behaviour was ‘horse play’ and without consequence to other members of the public. When other, usually less experienced (the majority),police officers witnessed such behaviour they were much more likely to act, engaging with the ‘offenders’ at an early stage of the situations. The result was that where police officers didn’t act, there were fewer arrests, fewer injuries and the situations usually defused itself without intervention. However when officers did intervene early the situations were far more likely to escalate and more people were likely to be sucked into the situation. When the police took action more of a crowd of onlookers usually developed with the result that some of them got drawn into the situation. The police officers who did act early almost all reported that they felt compelled to ‘do something’ and that ‘sitting around doing nothing isn’t an option’.

Action bias frequently draws us into ‘doing something’ when hanging back, observing and exploring the situation for a while is often the best action to take. As you can see action bias can make easily situations worse and is the foundation of a lot of poor decision making in companies and organisations around the world. This is linked to both the illusion of control phenomena and regression fallacy which were the subject of the last two blogs.

It is also worthwhile noting that action bias leads us to jump into developing solutions before we have the problem fully articulated (solutionizing). A subject that has been the focus of previous blogs.

Also there are one or two places left on the March 4th workshop.

Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer H. Azar, Ilana Ritov, Yael Keidar-Levin and Galit Schein (2007) Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology Volume 28, Issue 5, October 2007, Pages 606-621

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