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Sunday, April 13, 2008

The action bias drives one to go left or right -- not sit tight

I collected three articles for my blog this week that all involve the decision to go left or right.

Last Sunday’s Parade magazine reported that Tom Dowdy, an engineer for UPS delivery, estimates a savings of 3 million gallons of gas per year by biasing delivery routes to right, rather than left, turns. The reduction in idling time reduced UPS truck emissions by 32,000 metric tons – the equivalent air pollution of 5300 cars.

This week’s “Ask Marilyn” column in Parade features an observation by Bob English of Lakeland, Florida, who avoided a head on collision thanks to time seemingly slowing down. Marilyn calls this phenomenon “extreme concentration” – a positive reaction to incredible stress. This happened to me some years ago. On a peaceful weekend morning with ideal driving conditions I took my daughter and niece up the Saint Croix Valley for a visit with my mother. Halfway there the one car we encountered on the 15 mile country route veered into directly at us. To me it felt like time stood still as I realized that we’d hit head on in just a second. I remember seeing that I had only a narrow shoulder on the right and realizing that we’d roll if I went any further that direction. Then I clearly recall looking beyond the oncoming driver, who must have dozed off on this sunny morning. There were no other cars coming down the road. I then decided to go around to the left of the opposing automobile – a very radical move. What I did not consider was the other driver waking up and moving out of my lane back to the correct side of the road. I made the move successfully in any case. However, as I learned later from a defensive driving course, the correct maneuver is to go right not matter what – even it means you will crash into a ditch – better that then a head on collision.

The last of the three articles I collected this week is by Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post. He discusses the natural “action bias” of people who would do best by doing nothing. This causes investors to hold stocks as they peak and sell them after a big fall in price – not an optimal strategy! In another example of action bias, economist Ofer Axar compiled statistics on soccer goalies defending a penalty kick. He concluded that they would stop the most goals by standing still. However, over 90 percent of kicks were defended by diving left or right.

So, the next time you feel pressured into a decision one way or the other, consider the option of not doing anything just yet. However, if something bad will happen for sure by sitting still, I hope that you will benefit from a spell of extreme concentration and not the other typical reaction of people under extreme stress – a paralyzing ‘freeze.’


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