Don’t Do Something, Just Stand There

In the Washington Post Shankar Vedantam discusses “the action bias, or the desire to do something rather than nothing when you have just been through a terrible experience.” He cites evidence that both individuals and politicians often prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if “nothing” would be the wiser course.

When people suffer losses and confront the possibility of even greater reverses – it doesn’t matter if you are talking about a terrorist attack or a meltdown in retirement savings – it is psychologically difficult to do nothing, to hold course. This is true even when the action you contemplate produces an outcome that leaves you demonstrably worse than you were in the first place….

Economist Ofer Azar recently came up with a novel way to study the insidious nature of the action bias. He examined whether soccer goalies were more likely to stop penalty kicks when they dived to the left, dived to the right or stayed in the center of the goal. In a study of 286 penalty kicks faced by elite Israeli goalkeepers, Azar found that goalies had the best chance of stopping a kick when they remained in the center – partly because when they dived to one side, they left themselves with no chance of stopping a kick aimed at the other side or a kick aimed dead center. And even when they correctly guessed the direction of the kick, they still had only a 1-in-4 chance of stopping a goal.

Despite the clarity of the evidence, Azar found that goalies dived to one side or the other 93 percent of the time.

And of course it’s not just goalies. Vedantam suggests that “the Iraq war might be Exhibit A for the action bias”–noting Hillary Clinton’s statement in 2002: “In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.”

Good point. And he might go on to discuss the current rush to regulation in the wake of the subprime crisis and the Bear Stearns collapse. Voters expect politicians to “do something!” Regulators don’t want to look unresponsive. So everybody has a plan for more money, more regulation, or some sort of action. And of course it’s a recurring problem. Enron failed, and politicians panicked right into the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, whose costs will be with us long after we’ve forgotten what Enron was.

The bias toward action is one good reason for constitutional and procedural constraints on government actions. Constitutional limits on what government can legislate, bicameral legislatures, supermajorities, the filibuster, the presidential veto–all are designed to prevent hasty action, whether from popular delusions, demagogic campaigns, or the simple desire to be seen doing something rather than prudently refraining from misguided actions.