Is Doing Something Better Than Doing Nothing?
The Action Bias, in Action
I hate panenkas.
As a soccer player and fan (or football for my international readers), I have strong feelings about how to take a good penalty. As the player who always used to take penalties for my teams, along with other free kicks, I value placement and power. So watching panenkas always makes me cringe, no matter how well done they are.
For those who don’t know, a panenka in soccer is when a player chips the ball right down the middle when taking a penalty. They are counting on the keeper to dive to the side, so they don’t use a lot of power.
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It feels risky, maybe a little cheeky, until you look at the data.
In a study in the Journal of Economic Psychology, researchers examined action bias in goalkeepers by looking at how they reacted to penalties:
In soccer penalty kicks, goalkeepers choose their action before they can clearly observe the kick direction. An analysis of 286 penalty kicks in top leagues and championships worldwide shows that given the probability distribution of kick direction, the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s center. Goalkeepers, however, almost always jump right or left.
Since goalkeepers have to react so quickly to penalties, they often choose beforehand which way they are going dive.
As you can see above, most goalkeepers go either left or right. They choose action. In this study, 49% went to the left and 44% went to the right. Almost none of them stayed in the center.
But the kicks were much more evenly distributed between the left, center, and right. If goalkeepers had stayed in the center more frequently, they would have blocked more penalties.
The difficulty is that goalkeepers, like all of us, have a bias for action. No one wants their team to see them standing flat-footed in the goal when the other team is shooting to the left or right, even when statistically it makes sense.
What is Action Bias?
Action bias is the tendency to favor action over inaction. It is our need to feel like we’re doing something, even when taking action may not be effective.
I see Action Bias and the Additive Bias as very similar.
We discussed the book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less in a newsletter recently (check that one out below if missed it). Adding, like acting, are natural tendencies. So let’s explore more.
Our Bias for Action
You don’t have to look far to see how much we value a bias for action. It is in almost every job description. It brings us thousands of articles in a search. It has become a mantra in the tech world and beyond. It is one of Amazon’s Leadership Principles.