On the Pros and Cons of Bias Toward Action

One of my goals for 2023 is not just to be wiser but to develop more of a “bias toward action.” I’ve heard this term used a lot in business in recent years, often in relation to personalities like Elon Musk.

Musk’s reputation has, correctly I think, taken some major hits lately. So far, he has done little to cover himself with glory at Twitter, where his temperamental and alienating egotism has alienated many employees, users, advertisers and journalists.

And yet, I’ve admired a characteristic of his that predates his recent misadventures: that is, a bias toward action. Bias toward action is, of course, the tendency to favor action over inaction. The virtue of bias toward action is that actions are, in essence, a way of testing reality itself.

Testing Your Assumptions

You can, after all, think through a certain issue thousands of times but, until you test your thoughts via actions, you can’t know how those things will play out in the real world.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re an introvert sitting on an airplane. You put in your earbuds and watch something on your iPad because you assume the person sitting next to you has no interest in chatting and, even if they do, you might wind up caught in a very unpleasant, exhausting conversation.

Now, without a bias toward action, you’ll never know if any of those assumptions are true. So, you’ll never even try to engage with that person, who might not only be very interesting but a crucial professional contact for you to make. Your bias toward inaction could make your life more impoverished in various ways.

Learn More by Failing Fast

Bias toward action is related to the concept of learning more by failing fast. Failing fast is often embraced by tech startups so they can get to a quality product more quickly. For example, you create a software product and, through extensive beta testing and/or rapid product releases, you quickly find out what is and isn’t working.

Although failing fast is often associated with software development, it can be applied in other industries as well. Which brings us back to Elon Musk. Musk has had great success in using a fail fast approach in other industries, including his rocket company SpaceX.

During an interview for a 2005 article in Fast Company, Musk is quoted as saying, “Failure is an option [at SpaceX]. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

This amounts to a willingness to accept short-term failures in order to gain long-term successes. This is how SpaceX was ultimately capable of landing the first stage of a rocket safely back on on a sea barge. That success (and many subsequent successes) came only after a series of failures. Ars Technica reports:

SpaceX was willing to fail. As it had many times before. The company originally tried to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket at sea in January, 2015, after delivering a Dragon spacecraft to orbit….Rough seas prevented a barge landing the next month, and when the company tried a drone ship landing again in April, 2015, the propellant valve stuck and the rocket tipped over after coming down on the barge. Two more failures would follow in January and March … before the company finally stuck a sea-based landing. Each time the company had learned from previous mistakes until it finally knew enough to succeed.

The Problems with Bias Toward Action

That’s not to say that bias toward action and failing fast are always the way to go. You don’t jump off a three story building just to see if you can survive the fall. The risk of some failures is not worth the potential reward for learning something new. Sometimes a bias toward action just seems dumb, as Dilbert is scathingly aware of.

“Action bias” is not just a philosophical approach but a psychological phenomenon in which people prefer action to inaction, sometimes to disastrous effect. This can occur in many different professions. In the field of medical decision-making, for example, “there is the predisposition of professionals to interfere, even if not interfering would be a better option.”

Sometimes the psychological or social pressures behind action bias are powerful. “Our propensity for action … stems from our need to be in control,” reports The Decision Lab. “By taking action, we feel as though we’re actually doing something to forward ourselves or to better our situation. Actively doing something makes us feel as though we have the capacity to change things, while doing nothing makes us feel like we’ve given up, and have accepted that we can do nothing more. Essentially, action makes us feel better about ourselves than inaction, which serves as reinforcement for this behavior.”

Action bias can cause us to do things such as overreact to short-term dips in the stock market by selling stocks that shortly thereafter correct and climb higher. Or take the example of a coach who decides to tweak the starting line-up of his team after a close loss and so makes team performance worse.

Seeking the Sweet Spot

So, bias toward action and the embrace of fast failures can be powerful routes to greater success. But, when adopted unwisely, they can do more harm than good.

The secret is to know when to adopt this bias toward action. In my own case, I want to lean a little more into action and less into passive cogitation because I’ve tended toward the latter too often. That said, I want to be wise about it. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.

We’ll see where how things go. For now, though, you may want to ask yourself where you stand on the action/passivity spectrum. Are you so afraid of failure that you’re unwilling to take chances even where you should? Or are you so wired for action that you’re constantly doing dumb stuff that winds up backfiring on you?

Whichever way you lean, ask yourself if a course correction is called for. Then, well, take action. Or maybe not. Life is tricky.

Featured image: Action Man image by Fuzzerboots, May 3, 2018