Or how most problems in life are self-solving
A few years ago, my son was sick. We went to the doctor and he gave us a choice. Either he could have the usual treatment — Calpol, painkillers, etc — or, preferably, we could do nothing and let nature run its course.
We chose non-intervention.
That advice resonated with me for a long time and made me wonder how often we do damage when we are just trying to help.
There is a human bias toward action. When something happens or even before it does, we rush and get busy flapping around, pretending that intervention is always the best policy. In reality, most of the time we have no clue, we know that we are probably going to inflict more damage than good, but still, we go ahead, we can’t help it. We want to clear our conscience and be able to say: at least I tried.
Reality is too complex. In order to function well, we reduce it to working models — simplification of complex systems that we can understand — the problem is, these models are often wrong, simplistic, and don’t give us the real picture.
This action bias is the reason behind certain decisions like when we are stuck in traffic we start looking for alternative roads and often end up wasting more time than if we had stayed in the motorway.
Reasons for action bias
- Feel good factor. Ambiguous situations made us feel uncomfortable. By doing something, anything, we feel better about ourselves. This creates a false sense of security.
- Social pressure. When we are part of a group the stakes are high. Somebody must take charge and lead the pack. Often bystanders do more damage than good when trying to help the victims of an accident.
- Action rewards. Nobody was ever congratulated on his lack of action. Society and peer groups reward the brave, action-oriented individuals, that motivates people to have a go even when the situation doesn’t call for it.
- Retaliation. Whenever you feel you’ve been wronged, there is an impulse for revenge. However, this often leads to an outcome in which both parties end up worse off.
- Negotiation. In negotiations, we often weaken our position by talking when we should remain quiet. Whether it’s an interview or a pay rise, those who remain silent have the upper hand
In 1979 during the cold war, there was a nuclear close call triggered by a computer error at the US security headquarters. According to the data, 2000 nuclear heads were heading to US soil. A decision had to be made, to retaliate or to wait and see. Thankfully the US did nothing and WWIII was averted.
When somebody offends you for any reason, you could start a fight and do a lot of damage, or just let it go. It’s obvious what the rational decision is, but often we err on the side of action.
Busy vs Productive
In ambiguous situations where we don’t have all the information is better to sit on your hands and wait until there is enough data to make a decision.
Often we fall for the busy trap thinking we are being productive.
“Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action”
Busy means flapping around with no progress. Productive means less action and more results.
Ways to tell if you being productive or just busy:
- Productive people say no a lot while busy people say yes to everything
- Productive people have 3 priorities, busy people have 20
- Productive people don’t reply to emails
- Productive people focus on clarity before action
- Busy people multitask
Strategies to avoid action for the sake of it
- Wait and see. When unexpected events happen, it’s wiser to let the turmoil subside before making any decisions. Knee-jerk reactions are counterproductive
- Gather all the data. It takes time to find out what’s really happening, until then, do nothing
- Do not damage. The situation might be bad, but rushing will make it worse.
- Think of the consequences of your actions
- Let the problem sort itself out. Don’t cave in to the temptation of interventionism
- Buy yourself time. The more you delay a decision, the more data you’ll have
- Don’t show your cards. By talking when you should be quiet, and by doing when you should wait, you are giving away information that could be used against you
- Avoid interventionism. Whenever you feel the urge to act, think of Irak, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. Is their situation better or worse after intervention?
We all like to help, to solve problems, to fix things, and to participate, but often we are not aware of the consequences of our actions and the complexity of the situation.
In uncertain situations, we panic and react trying to fly forward but before we do anything, we should consider the damage we can create.
Busy is not always better than idle.
Noise is not better than silence.
Action is not better than reflection.
If a goalkeeper stays put instead of moving to the sides, 50% of the penalties would be saved.
Talking about action. The COVID-19 measures, from governments around the world, to close the economy have been a knee-jerk reaction. The death toll will be higher from poverty and desperation than by the virus itself.
It’s a bad decision to sacrifice the lives of millions in order to save a few thousand. Doing nothing would have been a better option. Every action has consequences we must be aware of before we do too much damage. This not just hindsight bias, I’ve been saying this for a while now.
Nothing heals better than time, sometimes you have to do what you have to do but don’t just act for the sake of action. Sit down, pause, and reflect.