Maybe Hamlet had the right idea. According to Ofer H. Azar, a lecturer in the School of Management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, inaction may often be a prudent choice in situations where most of us feel compelled to do something.
Mr. Azar studied high-stakes decision-making—not in the boardroom, but on the soccer field, where he collected data on the attempts of professional goalies to block penalty kicks. Regularly faced with huge incentives to block penalty kicks, goalies offer a great proxy for people who routinely make quick, high-pressure decisions. Mr. Azar hoped to see just how rationally people respond to such situations. Surprisingly, he found that goalies facing penalty kicks tended to let their emotions dictate their actions—often leading to detrimental outcomes.
During a penalty kick, the goalie must stand with his heels on the goal line while an opponent kicks the ball from 12 yards away. The goalie cannot move until the opponent has kicked the ball, and there is not enough time for the goalie to watch the shot and react. Thus, goalies must make a choice about where they think the ball will be kicked before the shot is made.
Since the greatest proportion of shots end up near the center of the net, the goalie’s best defense is to stay put. The trouble is, goalies find it very difficult to stay in the middle, simply because it makes them feel they aren’t doing anything. When asked why they jump left or right when it's efficient to stay put, they explain that they would feel worse if they stayed in the middle and the shooter scored than if they had at least jumped one way or the other.
We are not all professional soccer goalies. But we may feel the compulsion to act under pressure. Even if inaction is more efficient, we may take action just so we feel good about doing something. Emotion can play a large part in our decisions, especially high-stakes decisions. Economists may need to reassess the degree to which emotions can influence decision-making. In the same article, Stanford economist Paul Romer says, “How people feel about various kinds of activities means a lot about what they decide to do. In many situations, [economists] just look at the narrow monetary payoffs and forget about the effects of preference or feelings.” To learn more about the blend of emotion and calculation that goes into our decisions, read this article from the New York Times and think about the questions below.
1. Apply this logic to high-stakes business decisions made by major corporations. When times are tough, do companies tend to want to do something rather than ride out the storm? Is that always the right decision?
2. What about playing the stock market? How much do emotions play a part in the decisions we make?
3. Identify areas in your own life where emotion plays a part in important decisions. Would the outcomes of your decisions be better if emotion did not play a part?
Labels: Behavioral Economics