Most of us enjoy relaxing at home. So why do we have so much trouble following social distancing or stay-at-home orders? A mental quirk called "action bias" is the likely reason, according to psychologist Eva M. Krockow.
As Krockow, a decision-making expert, explains in a new Psychology Today post, "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." That's why, when faced with a crisis, we often hear or give the exhortation to "Do something -- anything!" Even though that could be the opposite of helpful advice.
Faced with a decision between doing something and doing nothing, we humans often make the wrong choice Krockow writes. For instance, during a penalty kick in soccer, statistics show clearly that a goalie's best strategy is to remain in the center of the goal, yet most choose to act by leaping to the left or right. Or there's the stock market. When times are uncertain and stock prices are going down, respected investment experts including Warren Buffett invariably remind us that we should either buy or hold, but not sell. And yet, most investors feel an irresistible urge to sell out of fear that they'll lose even more money.
Or take the common situation of standing in a checkout line at a grocery store. You may be second or third in line, but if the person ahead of you is taking extra long by asking about sale prices or because the machine has trouble reading a credit card, you'll be tempted to move to a different line, even if it means being in ninth or tenth place. Even if you know deep down that you'll get out of the store sooner if you just stay put.
I just almost fell victim to action bias myself. I live in Washington State, one of the hardest hit by coronavirus. Social distancing has been strongly encouraged for weeks, and this week the governor gave an official order to stay at home except for essential functions such as food shopping and walking for exercise. And yet my husband had to talk me out of rushing our recycling to the recycling center, which is considered non-essential and will be closed until further notice after today. As he pointed out, we have plenty of space where we can store our empty cardboard boxes and rinsed-out cans until recycling re-opens. And going somewhere that's likely to be crowded because of tomorrow's closure is not a great idea.
Krockow says that our cultural values tend to reinforce the action bias. For example, one reason goalies jump during a penalty kick is that if they stand still and the ball gets by them, they'll be criticized for inaction, whereas if they leap one way or another and the ball gets by them, at least they were trying their best. Instead, we should learn to value inaction when it's appropriate, she advises. Celebrate the leader who chose not to make a bad deal, or the baseball players who chose not to swing at a foul ball.
When it comes to social distancing, it's a simple equation. If we all choose inaction over action we will save lives. So if you or your employees feel compelled to do something, make it a virtual something. Watch my friend the social media guru Sree Sreenivasan, who's hosting a daily webinar simulcast on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Or donate to one of the many organizations that are providing practical relief to people with Covid-19 or financial relief to small businesses whose survival it threatens.
Or, do as British TV host Piers Morgan exhorted people to do and sit on the couch watching TV, in service to your country and the good of the community. As for me, I'm trying to remember way, way back, about a month ago. Back then, I yearned for a quiet few days at home so I could sprawl in front of Netflix and repot a bunch of houseplants that need it badly. Come to think of it, that still sounds like fun.