If you were a soccer goalie trying to stop a penalty, what would you do?
I just read a remarkable study by a group of behavioral economists from Israel (Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer H. Azar, Ilana Ritov, Yael Keidar-Levin and Galit Schein) that analyzed which way is the most promising (I will get to their solution shortly).
Behavioral economics is a science that tries to analyze the impact of “social, cognitive and emotional factors [on] economic decisions” (Wikipedia). It basically links economics with sociology and psychology and I had the pleasure that large parts of my university studies were looking at the effects of this combination. It’s a fascinating approach as it shifts the focus from rather theoretical, rational buying behavior to a more holistic approach that sees the social context consumers are living in.
All our actions have an impact – not only on us, but on others as well. More interestingly, inactivity also has an impact: When people expect us to do any sort of activity and we’re not, there may be dissonances in perception, especially when the outcome of not being active is negative. The above mentioned study cites the theory on this subject as follows: “People have stronger feelings associated with outcomes when they come from abnormal causes” – especially with negative outcomes.
Let’s leave the theory a bit and make it better to understand by translating it to your personal surrounding at home: When your partner asks you if you did buy the lottery ticket as she asked you to buy (expected activity), you admit that you didn’t (inactivity) and five minutes later her favorite numbers are drawn (negative outcome), you can bet she will be angry with you. If the numbers aren’t drawn (no negative outcome), she will probably (well, let’s say hopefully) not be too angry.
Back to the soccer penalty example: Most studies and statistics state that approximately 75% of the penalties are converted, so the goalies most probably expect a negative outcome. Therefore, not performing the expected activity would lead to a very negative reception: Team mates and fans expect the goalie to jump to one of the corners, so he will choose one of the corners instead of standing still at the center of the goal.
Just imagine the goalie from your favorite team in a penalty situation. If the shot goes to the right corner and he stays in the middle you will think that he looked pretty bad. If he jumps to the left corner, he will also miss the ball, but you will be more likely to accept his performance because “at least he tried”.
That brings me back to the results of the Israeli study I promised you: The probability to stop the ball is highest if the goalie stays in the center of the goal instead of jumping to any corner, but the mechanism I just explained, the “Action Bias”, makes the goalies jump anyway.
How many “goalkeepers” do you see jumping into the corners every day in your office environment? I have the feeling that the Action Bias is an extremely common pattern in our organizations. Though most managers would claim that they are looking for results, not just for activity, the “norm behavior” usually isn’t inactivity. You’re not being paid for doing nothing, right?
The thing is that there’s a difference between laziness and an active decision not to take an action just because it would make you look like hard-working. Yet, it’s a tough step to tell your boss “no, I’m not going to do this as I believe not doing anything in this regard will lead to a better result”.
There are many fields in which continuity may be a pretty good strategy. It’s not sexy, but can be successful in certain cases.
How many brands have been destroyed because people felt like they would have to try something new and reposition the brand or because a new brand manager came in and thought that it would be easier to make a mark by changing things.
How many long lasting customer relationships have been harmed because someone felt like he had to do something about the relationship?
How much value in investment portfolios has been destroyed because the owner felt like they would have to adjust it?
As you know from reading my blog, I’m doing all but promoting laziness or inactivity. However, with the knowledge on the action bias, we should ask ourselves more frequently prior to pursuing an activity if we’re just going to do it because we feel like any sort of activity would be needed or because of the great value potential of the activity.
There are so many good, value-adding activities to be done. Don’t waste your time just doing unproductive things for the sake of doing things and just because it is expected from you. Stay in the middle, stop the penalty and start the counterattack instead.