Action Bias

The action bias is our tendency to “prefer action over inaction”. Faced with a decision, or potentially ambiguous situation, we are predisposed to doing something, anything, even when there is no evidence that shows this will lead to a better outcome than doing nothing would.

An example of a systematic challenge due to the action bias was brought to light by Patt and Zeckhauser. They authored one of the earliest papers on the action bias (2000), in which they outlined certain areas affected by it. In particular, they focused on policy-making. They described how, in order to make a salient impression, politicians will often pass showy — but relatively ineffective — environmental policies. Such action gives the impression that something is being done, when, in actuality, the effects are minimal. Our bias towards action may result in us applauding these empty actions, even though no real progress is being made.

Action Bias, The Decision Lab

Due to the ways in which our environment and lifestyle have evolved, the action bias is less necessary for survival than it once was. That being said, those who act are still rewarded above those who do not. For example, students who participate in class are often praised above those who choose to remain quiet. This reinforces our instinct to act, causing us to engage in this behavior more, thereby making it habitual.

Action Bias, The Decision Lab

There are two important lessons to learn from this that can be applied to the workplace. The first lesson is from FYI: For Your Improvement, a guide for coaching and development. In it, Lombardo and Eichinger (2009) remind us about being overly action-oriented, and that one consequence of overusing or over relying on an action-oriented mentality is that we tend to push for solutions without doing an adequate analysis.

The second lesson is about exercising good impulse control. The ability to think before you act, being deliberate, and surveying a situation is part of impulse control (the ability to resist or delay the impulse to act), an important factor in the Bar-On Model of Emotional-Social Intelligence (Bar-On, 2006; Multi-Health Systems, 2011). Individuals who lack or are low in impulse control will often act now and think later. They tend to be overactive, impatient, and leap before they look.

– Steve Nguyen, “An ‘Action Bias’ Can Be Counterproductive”, Workplace Psychology


Nguyen, Steve, and PH.D. 2018. “An ‘Action Bias’ Can Be Counterproductive.” Workplace Psychology (blog). September 2, 2018.

Patt, Anthony, and Richard Zeckhauser. 2000. “Action Bias and Environmental Decisions.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 21 (1): 45–72.

The Decision Lab. n.d. “Action Bias.” The Decision Lab (blog). Accessed January 6, 2022.