Subject: Action Bias – Soccer Goalie Study
Event: Birthday of Michael Bar-Eli, 1953
In his classic essay “Shooting An Elephant,” English writer George Orwell tells the story of an experience he had while serving as a police officer in Burma in the 1930s, a region under colonial rule by the British Empire at the time. When a rogue elephant gets loose, Orwell is confronted with a dilemma concerning whether or not to shoot the elephant. Feeling pressure from the gathered crowd to act rather than appear indecisive or cowardly, he shoots and kills the elephant. In the story’s final line, he honestly reflects on what he did and why he did it: “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”
The work of psychologist Michael Bar-Eli, who was born on this day in 1953, examines this distinctly human fear of being shamed by inaction. To examine what Bar-Eli calls the action bias, he studied the strategy of soccer goalies when facing a penalty kick. There are basically three potential targets for a player taking a penalty kick: the left side of the goal, the right, or the middle. Even though each target is equally likely, you rarely see a goalie remain in the middle of the goal; instead, they dive either to the left or the right side. Despite the fact that a statistical analysis by Bar-Eli reveals that the optimal strategy for goalies is to stay in the center, the pull of the action bias is too strong. Rather than risk the appearance of being indecisive or facing the embarrassment of not following the normal course of action, the goalies prefer diving, even when it results in a dive in the wrong direction.
The action bias makes sense when you think about it in evolutionary terms. Our ancestors survived by reacting quickly when facing potential danger; a human who spent too much time in contemplation became easy prey for a predator. If we’re aware of the action bias, we know that our automatic, default response to situations is to act swiftly. However, as with Orwell and the elephant or a goalie preparing to stop a penalty kick, sometimes it makes sense to develop a strategy or rationale, looking before you leap.
Today our instincts still drive us to favor quick, decisive action, but the truth is our strength as a species is our ability to ruminate and reflect before we act. Society still favors decisiveness and quick responses. Looking busy trumps looking foolishly inactive. Understanding the action bias, however, gives us the insight to follow reason rather than our feelings. Even though taking time to reflect and ruminate might feel awkward, it often pays off by offering a prudent plan rather than a rash action.
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is the action bias, and how can watching penalty kicks in a soccer game teach us about life?
Challenge – Proverbs/Converbs: Although proverbs are meant to convey concise wisdom to live by, many contradict each other. For example, one proverb cautions us against the action bias saying, “Look before you leap.” Another snippet of proverbial wisdom, however, rebuts with, “He who hesitates is lost.” Research a pair of contradictory proverbs. Quote them both; then, make your argument for which one of the two is the wiser advice.
Dobelli, Rolf, The Art of Thinking Clearly. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.