Is an Action Bias to Blame for the Struggle to Stay Home?

Research explains why taking a passive role in times of crises is hard.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

 Marcelo Dias/Pexels
Taking a passive role during a crisis isn't as easy as it seems.
Source: Marcelo Dias/Pexels

As Britain is nearing a complete lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a sizeable number of people are struggling to follow the government’s guidance to stay at home and practice “social distancing.”

I am one of those people. Over the weekend, I found it difficult to stay at home while beautiful spring weather was calling out to me. And right now, while writing this post on my living room sofa, I am feeling frustrated beyond belief about being confined to these four walls. In fact, I strangely envy my husband, who, as a medical doctor, gets to leave the house each morning to actively tackle the global crisis.

Politicians, journalists, and doctors across the country have been criticising the population for their lack of compliance with the official guidance to stay at home. In a televised rant, a leading journalist expressed his anger at people who failed to make this sacrifice. In fact, he compared the current situation to the challenges encountered during previous wartime crises: "How bad is this? How big a sacrifice do you think you’re making for your country? You're not going to fight anybody. You're not going to risk your life being gunned down on trenches. You're being asked to go home, sit there and do this: watch telly. What is wrong with people?"

While it is true that watching TV behind closed doors is a laughably easy task compared to defending your country against approaching troops, taking a passive role in times of a crisis may not be quite as easy as it seems. In fact, psychological research on cognitive biases can explain the population’s struggle to follow the advice.

The action bias

When solving problems or tackling challenges, humans have an inherent tendency for taking action in order to feel in charge and take control of the situation. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as action bias and it has been observed in many real-life situations including the examples below.

1. A football goalkeeper is facing the challenge of a penalty kick, where one player from the opposing team is trying to score a goal from an 11-meter distance. Statistics show that the probability of preventing a goal is greatest if the keeper stays in the centre of the goalposts. Nevertheless, most keepers choose to act by jumping either to the left or the right-hand corner of the goal. 

2. An investor is anxiously monitoring the economic market and notices a price drop in their shares. Price movements in stocks are a common occurrence, which do not necessarily reflect long-term trends. To avoid unnecessary transaction costs, the best strategy is therefore not to react to small market fluctuations. Nevertheless, most investors have a strong tendency to “overtrade” and sell their shares in a reaction to small price drops. 

3. A busy supermarket shopper is eyeballing two checkout queues, trying to estimate the quickest way out. After joining a queue, the customer in front creates a delay by asking for the prices of different reduced items. Delays like this are frequent and can happen in any queue. They are out of the customer’s control and simply require patience. Nevertheless, most supermarket shoppers decide to switch queues immediately even if this means being last again in a different line.

Why is the action bias so powerful?

All of the examples above illustrate a strong preference for taking action, even when strategies of patience, restraint, and waiting are likely to yield better results. If non-action is such a promising strategy, then why are people consistently failing to “stay put”?

The action bias can be explained by the cultural values underlying it. Most societies interpret action as a valuable contribution, while labeling non-action as lazy and compliant. Common folk tales praise brave actions of their heroes slaying monsters or rescuing the weak and vulnerable. News stories highlight individual civilians who stand up to threats through risky endeavours—be it the rescue of children from a burning house or the active defence of bully victims in public spaces.

Given our preference for active heroism, it is no wonder that many people struggle to sit idly on their sofas while society is facing an unprecedented public health threat! Active strategies such as recurrent supermarket trips to stock up on household items or unnecessary doctor’s visits may only aggravate the problem, but they seem inherently more appealing.

Don’t get me wrong—I certainly don’t support the current dismissal of public health guidance and the continued breach of government directives to stay at home. However, I doubt that harsh criticism of people’s irrational behaviours is an appropriate reaction. We need to understand the reasons for non-compliance and address the behaviour at its core. One way of doing so in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic is to praise and reward “passive” choices of staying at home rather than labeling them as an easy option. Because, let’s face it: waiting for a crisis to pass can be just as tough as actively fighting it.