What Is Bias for Action? | Definition & Examples

Bias for action (also called action bias) is the tendency to favour action over inaction. Because of bias for action, we often feel compelled to act, even when we don’t have all the information we need or are uncertain about the outcome.

Example: Bias for action
Suppose that you are a sales representative and your team is under pressure to meet the monthly sales quota. Here are two possible scenarios:

  • When you realise that you are not on track to meet your goals, you feel frustrated. However, since you are not the head of the department, there’s nothing you can do. You wait for instructions, hoping that your supervisor will figure something out.
  • When you realise that you are not on track to meet your goals, you immediately take on more responsibility and start cold-calling. Because of your quick response, your team meets its goals for the month.

In the second scenario, you clearly showed bias for action. 

Depending on the situation, bias for action can be beneficial for our personal and professional growth. It can also cause us to act impulsively.

What is bias for action?

Bias for action is a type of cognitive bias whose meaning varies depending on the context. As a leadership principle, it has a positive connotation. Here, bias for action denotes the ability to overcome the ‘analysis paralysis’ that can prevent us from making an informed decision and acting upon it, especially in the face of uncertainty.

However, it can also describe the tendency to respond with action as a default, without thinking about the consequences. When used with a negative connotation, the term action bias is more common.

Bias for action as a leadership principle

In the context of business, bias for action is a principle popularised by Amazon, the e-commerce platform. The rationale behind it is rather simple: in business, many decisions are reversible, and therefore do not need excessive scrutiny. For this reason, it’s best to act quickly, rather than being totally sure about every little detail. Amazon expects its employees to be able to take calculated risks (in other words, to resist overanalysing and overthinking), using the data at their disposal to make decisions.

In general, a person who shows bias for action can also be described as a self-starter, a proactive person not afraid to take risks. These are all skills that managers often look for in employees, and many feature in job ads. However, it is important not to confuse bias for action with taking a shot in the dark, or simply trying to do too much within an unrealistic time frame. Bias for action requires that employees understand the complexity of decision-making and make quick decisions that aren’t overly optimistic.

Action bias as a cognitive bias

In the context of psychology, action bias refers to people’s impulse to act even when there is no indication that doing so will benefit them. In this case, taking action is an automatic response not based on logical thinking or evaluation. Here, overconfidence bias or the pressure behind the expectations of others often fuel action bias.

This impulse to act first is a heuristic, or a mental shortcut. Just like other heuristics, it can be useful, but it can also cause us to act in situations where the best response would be to do nothing. Goal-keepers for instance tend to jump to the left or right on penalty kicks, even though statistically they would be better off if they just stayed in the middle of the goal post.

Why is bias for action important?

Bias for action can have several benefits for employees at organisations that utilise this principle in their corporate culture. More specifically, bias for action:

  • Allows organisations to move fast. Speed matters in business. To be able to seize business opportunities and innovate, organisations need to embrace change. In other words, employees need to feel safe enough to try out different things even if they fail, and adjust their course from there.
  • Overcomes overanalysis and procrastination. The inability to decide on a next step is often an indication that the team doesn’t have the right information to make a decision. By prioritising action, like talking to customers or running A/B tests, teams can collect meaningful data that can inform their decisions. This creates a virtuous circle, where putting something out there based on an informed decision leads to more learning and data generation.
  • Facilitates personal growth. Organisations that favour bias for action motivate their employees to step out of their comfort zone and experiment with a new solution or approach. Being risk-tolerant and seeing failure as an opportunity to develop one’s abilities helps one grow professionally and personally.

Bias for action examples

Bias for action manifests itself in several ways in the workplace, permeating all levels of an organisation.

Example: Bias for action in the workplace
Here are examples illustrating bias for action:

  • Organising meetings with a clear purpose in mind, and ensuring that participants walk away knowing what to do
  • Leadership teams and employees thinking and acting quickly upon receiving new information
  • Employees creating thoughtful plans that lead to action sooner rather than later, rather than perfect plans
  • Managers making their employees feel safe, encouraging them to take risks, and not becoming frustrated when those risks don’t always work out
  • Ensuring transparent communication (encouraging employees to communicate what they know, to listen to others, and to share progress, even if things don’t go as planned)

People’s preference for action, even when there is no evidence showing that it’s more beneficial, can explain why patients prefer taking antibiotics (which in their minds is an ‘active’ option) over resting.

Example: Action bias and treatment options
In one study, researchers examined how informing patients about the cause of their viral infection and the ineffectiveness or potential side effects of antibiotics, could reduce their preference for antibiotics over rest.

In two experiments, participants either received incomplete information (about the viral cause of their infection) or complete information (about viral cause and the ineffectiveness and harms of taking antibiotics), before deciding to rest or take antibiotics.

Those in the complete information conditions showed an inclination for action bias by opting for antibiotics. In two follow-up experiments, researchers reframed the resting option as an action in order to counteract the action bias. Providing complete information reduced but did not eliminate inappropriate preferences for antibiotics.

Around 10% of people wanted antibiotics even when informed they are harmful and offer no benefit and even when the alternative option (i.e., rest) was framed as an active treatment option. Results suggest that action bias underpins this preference for antibiotics which is challenging to counteract.

How to develop bias for action

Bias for action is not necessarily an innate quality. You can also cultivate it yourself. Here are a few steps you can take:

  • Break down bigger tasks into smaller parts. Creating smaller goals will help you achieve your larger goal. In this way, you can avoid feeling overwhelmed, stay focused, and move forward by taking incremental steps.
  • Build risk tolerance. Instead of waiting for the perfect moment or all the answers, take action by gathering the most important information to form a decision.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for help or ask questions to find answers as quickly as possible. If you can’t find the information, don’t hesitate to make the call either.
  • Try doing something that gets you out of your comfort zone. Taking on a new task, such as offering to train your colleagues on a new process, will break your routine just enough so that you’re stretched to think and act differently.
  • Strive for progress, not perfection. Accept that uncertainty is part of decision-making and a 100% success rate is not realistic. Once your decisions play out, you learn from that and adjust your course.
  • Show initiative, take responsibility, and act without waiting for permission. Even when something is not your job, jump in and offer to help.

Frequently asked questions

Why is bias for action good?

Bias for action is a sought-after quality in many companies where innovation and speed are important. Because acting fast is often better than being 100% certain in business, bias for action allows employees to make decisions and act on them quickly.

According to bias for action, if an action is reversible, it’s better to get started and adjust your course along the way, rather than waiting for the right moment or the perfect plan. In this way, employees can take advantage of new opportunities, experiment, and learn from failure. In the long run, this benefits the company.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, March 10). What Is Bias for Action? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 22 February 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/bias-in-research/the-bias-for-action/

Sources

Thorpe, A., Sirota, M., Juanchich, M., & Orbell, S. (2020). Action bias in the public’s clinically inappropriate expectations for antibiotics. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 26(3), 422–431. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000269

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.