Why Watching and Waiting Is Torture
In a penalty situation in soccer, the ball takes less than 0.3 seconds 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 make a decision before the ball is kicked. Soccer players who take penalty kicks shoot 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. 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 penalties? The simple answer: appearance. 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 the action bias: Look active, even if it achieves nothing.
This study comes from the Israeli researcher Michael Bar-Eli, who evaluated hundreds of penalty shoot-outs. But not just goalkeepers fall victim to the action bias. Suppose a group of youths exit a nightclub and begin to argue, shouting at each other and gesturing wildly. The situation is close to escalating into an all-out brawl. The police officers in the area—some young, some more senior—hold back, monitor the scene from a distance, and intervene only when the first casualties appear. If no experienced officers are involved, this situation often ends differently: Young, overzealous officers succumb to the action bias and dive in immediately. A study revealed that later intervention, thanks to the calming presence of senior officers, results in fewer casualties.
The action bias is accentuated when a situation is new or unclear. When starting out, many investors act like the young, gung ho police officers outside the nightclub: They can’t yet judge the stock market so they compensate with a sort of hyperactivity. Of course this is a waste of time. As Charlie Munger sums up his approach to investing: “We’ve got . . . discipline in avoiding just doing any damn thing just because you can’t stand inactivity.”
The action bias exists even in the most educated circles. If a patient’s illness cannot yet be diagnosed with certainty, and doctors must choose between intervening (i.e., prescribing something) or waiting and seeing, they are prone to take action. Such decisions have nothing to do with profiteering, but rather with the human tendency to want to do anything but sit and wait in the face of uncertainty.
So what accounts for this tendency? In our old hunter-gatherer environment (which suited us quite well), action trumped reflection. Lightning-fast reactions were essential to survival; deliberation could be fatal. When our ancestors saw a silhouette appear at the edge of the forest—something that looked a lot like a saber-toothed tiger—they did not take a pew to muse over what it might be. They hit the road—and fast. 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 rewards reflection, even though our instincts may suggest otherwise.
Although we now value contemplation more highly, outright inaction remains a cardinal sin. You get no honor, no medal, no statue with your name on it if you make exactly the right decision by waiting—for the good of the company, the state, even humanity. On the other hand, if you demonstrate decisiveness and quick judgment, and the situation improves (though perhaps coincidentally), it’s quite possible your boss, or even the mayor, will shake your hand. Society at large still prefers rash action to a sensible wait-and-see strategy.
In conclusion: In new or shaky circumstances, we feel compelled to do something, anything. Afterward we feel better, even if we have made things worse by acting too quickly or too often. So, though it might not merit a parade in your honor, if a situation is unclear, hold back until you can assess your options. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal. At home, in his study.