Who among the two do you think is a bigger culprit?
Scenario 1: A nurse has the responsibility of taking care of the patient by giving him an injection each day. Without the dose of the needle, the patient will die. One day, the nurse does not administer the medicine on purpose and the patient dies.
Scenario 2: A doctor has to perform a daily check up on a patient admitted for flu. One day, the doctor decides to inject cyanide into the patient while he is sleeping, thereby killing him.
The doctor committed a bigger crime, didn’t he? He killed a patient. He is a murderer.
If you felt so, you fell victim to the omission bias.
But wait, think again. How different is the outcome of the nurses’ case? If you look at both these cases keeping your emotions aside, both the doctor and the nurse caused the death of a patient intentionally.
Yet, somehow what the doctor did seems more immoral than the nurse. The reason is, the doctor performed some action which led to the death of the patient but the nurse caused death by doing nothing.
Though the difference is subtle, an activity that leads to dire consequences seems more criminal than no action which leads to the same outcome. Such a thought process of the mind is called the omission bias.
I am writing a set of posts to help you identify how your brain plays games with you. This article is on the topic – The Omission Bias. You can read about all the biases of the mind by clicking here.
- What is Omission Bias?
- Omission Bias examples in Real life
- How the omission bias affects you
- How to overcome the omission bias
What is Omission Bias?
Omission bias is the human tendency to judge a harmful action as more immoral than inaction, even if both lead to the same results. Your brain tricks you into a false sense of morals based on action vs no action.
This bias is the opposite effect of the action bias, where you feel awkward doing nothing. For example, people talk in group meetings just to avoid appearing as the person who had nothing to add.
The experiment of John, the tennis player
Researchers performed an experiment on a group of people by presenting them with the following scenario.
John faces Ivan in the final of the tennis tournament tomorrow. That night, both the finalists take part in a dinner buffet for the pre-final event. John knows Ivan has an allergy to yogurt.
When both the sportsmen are adding food to their plate, Ivan unknowingly picks up a dish containing yogurt which he is allergic to. John notices the error but does not tell Ivan about it. Ivan falls sick and John wins.
While both the players are picking food, John, on purpose recommends Ivan to try the salad which contains yogurt. Ivan, unaware of the ingredients, eats the dish, falls sick and loses the next day.
The majority of the people voted John recommending the allergic food to Ivan as more immoral compared to remaining silent about the salad.
John caused Ivan’s sickness in both cases. He could have prevented his rival from eating the dish. But remaining silent appears less sinful than recommending the dish on purpose.
Inaction even when the consequences are worse
The bias does not only take effect when the outcome of action and inaction is the same. In some cases, it takes such a strong shape that no action seems like the better choice even if it leads to worse consequences.
For example, let us say 100 people suffer from an incurable disease. A doctor comes up with a medicine that kills 20 people on the spot but saves the life of the other 80. If you have to approve the drug, would you do it?
Most people will withhold approval. Killing 20 people immediately seems terrible compared to saving the other 80 even if they suffer from a disease with no cure. Though the drug saves more lives overall, the action of approving the drug which kills a few people seems more unethical than letting all the patients die due to disease itself.
Even if you make a bold decision to approve the drug, the first death would send a shockwave through the media forcing you to withdraw the drug.
Omission Bias examples in Real life
The omission bias takes various shapes in day to day life.
1. Euthanasia vs refusing life-saving measures
Euthanasia is the act of intentionally killing someone very sick to prevent suffering. Such a practice is illegal in most countries. In contrast, the law considers refusing life-saving support by choice as legal.
In both cases, the decision leads to the death of the patient. The only difference lies in the method where one causes death by action while the other causes death by inaction. Even the law goes through an omission bias to put a boundary between the two to deem one as legal and the other unlawful.
Is a thought running in your head that the law is indeed fair? If so, you are under the effect of the bias right now.
2. Parents denying vaccination for children
As per current medicine, vaccines are key to keeping yourselves healthy. Without them, you turn vulnerable to diseases that can kill you. Yet, many of the parents refuse to vaccinate their children due to the possible side effects. 3.3% of the US parents refused vaccination fearing the consequences.
While the vaccines can cause side effects in rare cases, the chances of falling victim to diseases by refusing vaccines are much higher. Yet, parents prefer choosing to not take the action of vaccinating their children to avoid the possible consequences.
Even though inaction, in this case, can lead to death, it creates a fake moral comfort for the brain.
3. Fewer fouls during the end of the game
Irrespective of which sport you watch, the final moments of some games are nailbiters. The situation aggravates if the match is the final of the championship.
Have you noticed how referees behave during such moments? Under the immense pressure of making the right decision, the referees prefer to not call out fouls unless they are severe. Some fouls which the same referee would have called out during normal moments, go ignored. The fear of calling out an incorrect foul scares the referees into not calling out fouls at all.
NBA statistics have shown that referees call 50% lesser fouls during the tense moments of the game.
4. Goalkeeper defending right or left
In sports like football or hockey, during the penalty shootout, the goalkeeper defends the shot from the opponent. You see the goalkeeper jumping to the right or the left to defend the post. How often do you see a goalkeeper holding his ground to defend the shot? As per the math and statistics, the opponent can kick the ball towards the left, right or the center.
Here, the reverse of omission bias comes into play. The keeper worries about standing like a fool without attempting a leap while the ball sails on the right or the left.
5. Murder case witnesses
The law can only charge a person guilty when strong evidence exists. Even if multiple clues point towards the case, the evidence is a mandate.
A similar effect of the omission bias occurs when the witness steps in to give their testimony. Many witnesses refrain from giving out evidence which can prove a person guilty. Compare that with a witness giving out false evidence. Most people would scream how shameful such action is.
But people fail to consider that, a witness remaining silent can lead to the wrong person being held guilty too. Nobody blames the witness who failed to speak up as much as the witness who lied.
The decision of not taking an action seems like the better moral choice.
How the omission bias affects you
Just like the real-life examples, you fall victim to the bias yourself.
1. Sticking with a job you hate
A big chunk of employees are disappointed with their jobs. They hate going to work, they loathe their manager and they despise the work they have to do daily. Though employees have the choice to quit their job and build their own business, the consequences of such action scare them.
What if I lose the money? What if I cannot find a job that pays the same again? What if I come up with an emergency? The fear of failure kicks in and inaction seems like the best decision. The comfort zone of the current paycheck leads to people sticking to a job which makes them nauseous.
If you hate your job and decide to do nothing but stick with it, you are falling victim to the omission bias on a daily basis. You can start your business along with your full-time job if you want to.
2. Entrepreneurs sticking to their current style
Take the case of the owner of a supermarket who has a new idea about rearranging the placement of the goods to increase the sales. Such a change can lead to good or bad consequences. If the plan works, the entrepreneur mints money. If the idea falls flat on the face, he loses money which he would have made by changing nothing.
In such a dilemma, many entrepreneurs prefer to stick with what they’re currently doing. The fear of failing by taking the action of going in a new direction leads to no action. Many companies have perished due to such siloed thinking. For example, Kodak stuck to their original plan of cameras with roles when digital cameras stepped into the market.
3. Drunken drivers
Take the case of a car with two passengers that meets with an accident. If the driver was under the influence of alcohol, the law and the public blames the driver alone.
If you give it a thought, the other person in the car can also be held responsible because he allowed the drunk driver to take the steering wheel. If the driver was adamant, it is a different story. But in most cases, the friend of the drunken driver does nothing to stop the illegal move by his friend.
Was it not the moral responsibility of the other person to prevent the drunken driver?
4. Tolerating a low performer
Many teams have a poor performer who continues for eternity in the team. Unfortunately, the boss is facing the omission bias. He thinks, “If I let go of the employee, he might up stranded with no income.”
Many managers and bosses find it difficult to fire an employee even under the grounds of low performance. When the bad performer leaves himself, the manager breathes a sigh of relief.
5. Hiding the truth
Many a time, you come across a situation where you have to hide something from your partner or parents or a friend. Whatever you are hiding is usually a simple offense. Maybe you had some drinks and kept that a secret from your parents.
You did not lie, but neither did you utter the truth. You just suppressed some parts of the story.
If you tell your parents the truth, you fear the aftermath. In some cases, the outcome of your parents realizing that you hid the truth could turn more acute.
From a moral point, hiding the truth isn’t completely ethical either. Yet, the inaction of hiding the truth seems like the best choice.
6. Focusing only on the benefits during sales
If you are a salesperson, you have a job to sell the product. Now, you know the product has its advantages as well as its set of disadvantages. When you pitch to a prospective client, you explain the benefits in detail. Unless the other person brings up a specific question related to the disadvantage, you remain silent about it.
Stating the truth can, in fact, boost your impression when done right. Some sales executives use the same approach to garner the trust of the client. Yet, most people in sales prefer to hide some parts of the truth. They worry about the customer walking away after learning about the disadvantage of the product.
Lying about a benefit or a flaw of the product seems wrong but not speaking about the disadvantages seems fair. People consider it normal for a sales executive to exhibit such behavior.
Omission bias shows up in a mild form by procrastination. Leaving the half-eaten plate of food on the couch seems like the best choice right now. Tomorrow, the room might stink or the plate might have fallen on the carpet. Yet the current inaction of leaving it as it is provides you instant gratification.
How to overcome the omission bias
Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to overcome the omission bias. Your best bet is to always consider the cost of inaction while making any major decisions.
When you want to start a venture, you worry about failure. Yes, the chances of failure do exist. But you only compare your possible future failure with your current comfort. Have you compared the cost of sticking to your monotonous job living a mediocre job for the rest of your life? Have you considered how the success of your business would compare against your current style of living?
Omission bias will kick in time and again within you. To make it worse, it is very difficult to detect.
Spotting action is easy, but identifying inaction? Not quite so.
Spotting lies is easy, but identifying hiding the truth? Not quite so.
A students movement coined a slogan that said: “If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.”
So keep a close eye on yourself. Yes, you should watch your actions and decisions but do not forget to consider your “no-actions”.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.