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Why doing nothing may sometimes be the best action of all

Why doing nothing may sometimes be the best action of all

Fresh research suggests our bias for action is emotional, not rational.

    An article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times “Business Day” section on March 1st, reporting on a study made by economist Ofer H. Azar at Ben-Gurion University of Negev in Israel, adds another dimension to the topic of the last article I wrote for Lifehack.org.

    In what I wrote then, I wondered whether our culture’s emphasis on getting things done — preferring action over time for thought or waiting to allow events to unfold further — was anything more than fashion. Now, it seems, there’s evidence that this tendency to want to do something is neither as practical, nor as rational, as you may think.

    How people make high-stakes decisions

    Mr. Azar is interested in a topic much in vogue with contemporary economists: how investors make high-stakes decisions. In classical economics, people are assumed to make rational, independent choices based on self-interest. It’s an assumption that makes for neatness, but it appears to be wide of the mark.

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    Rather than construct some artificial experiment, Azar decided to study professional soccer goalkeepers and how they deal with the toughest, highest-stakes decision they are forced to make on a regular basis: how to act to stop a penalty kick at goal.

    Faced with a player sending the ball towards them at 80 m.p.h. or more, the goalkeeper has only a fraction of a second to decide how to block the shot. It’s a fearful challenge: 4 out of 5 penalty kicks score a goal.

    By analyzing data on more than 300 kicks, the researchers calculated the action most likely to prevent a goal being scored. Surprisingly, it is standing in the center of the goal and doing nothing until the trajectory of the ball can be seen. This resulted in a 1 in 3 success rate — far higher than the average.

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    Yet goalkeepers almost never act in this way. They typically try to guess the ball’s direction before the player’s foot has actually made contact with it, diving left or right to try to be in the right spot when the ball arrives. Neither is a good option. Diving left resulted in success 14% of the time; diving right only 12.6%.

    Why then is it so common to act in a way that is even less successful than the average?

    Fearing censure more than failure

    The researchers suggest that the answer lies in the goalkeepers’ emotions and the response they meet from others after failing. By taking action — even if it’s neither rational nor likely to be successful — they can at least be seen to have done something.

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    If they stand and wait until the ball is kicked and then fail to stop it, they feel worse because of their inaction; and others are far more likely to criticize them for not appearing even to try. It’s better to try a poor action than try a better — but seemingly passive — response if both fail; even though the “inactive” response is more rational and based on a better likelihood of success.

    Others value action, even when it’s wrong

    In today’s business world, action is preferred over the alternatives and is more likely to result in forgiveness when a mistake is made. You can always say that you tried. The person who does nothing is doubly damned: once for the mistake and again for not “doing something.”

    This urge to action — to get things done — is more emotional than rational. “Wait and see” risks your credibility and reputation, even where it can be shown to be the optimal course.

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    “Wait and see” may serve you better than anything you can do right away

    Few, if any, business or career decisions must be made as instantly as a goalkeeper reacting to a penalty kick; all are more complex and dependent on the way external events turn out. Yet managers still face this constant urge to act, even when waiting to see what else may happen can be shown to improve the chances of success.

    It’s interesting that Warren Buffett, probably the world’s most famous and most successful investor, is famous for his inaction. He has even been known to apologize to shareholders in his company, telling them that profits would have been higher if he had spent his time in total idleness, instead of acting to invest their money. Looking to the long term, he ignores short-term ups and downs and simply waits to see what will happen.

    If you think about it, doing nothing is often the right thing to do. Jumping into any action before all the facts are in, or failing to allow events to unfold before fixing on a way to interpret them, is both foolish and irrational. That’s why slowing down can be so powerful in helping you to reach success; you’re less likely to make avoidable errors.

    Organizational and career implications

    Given our strong cultural bias towards action — almost any action — it’s not surprising organizations are filled with people who would far rather do anything than wait on events — even though this would increase the chances that whatever action they choose in the end — even if it remains to do nothing — will be a success. Few decisions in the world of work are made rationally or objectively, especially when emotions from triumph and elation to shame and humiliation are tied up in the outcome.

    Still, the next time you feel that you really ought to get something done, it might be sensible to wonder what is urging you forward. Is it really the rational need to produce an outcome, based on a clear grasp of what is needed; or is it that nagging voice that tells you waiting any longer will leave you open to the charge that you didn’t even try?

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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