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Omission bias in sports & business

Imagine this scenario: you’re a basketball referee and a tie game is on the line. Time is ticking down, with a few seconds left, and a player gets aggressive on a rebound. If you call a foul, the other team gets a chance to win by scoring form the free throw line. If you don’t call the foul, the game continues and chances stay 50-50. So, what do you do?

Chances are, if you were the referee, you wouldn’t make the call.

A study featured in Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim’s book Scorecasting found that at the end of basketball games with close scores, referees tend to not make as many calls that result in the ball changing possession as they do earlier in the game. (Moskowitz and Wertheim even found that offensive fouls were 40% less likely to be called in overtime than during regular time of basketball games.)

Ultimately, this happens because referees are deciding that not making a call is a better option than blowing that whistle.

That's omission bias.

It's also why the vast majority of tennis players serve conservatively after a failed first attempt at the serve.

What is omission bias?

Omission bias is our tendency to judge actions with harmful consequences as worse than lack of action leading to harmful consequences.

In plain words, we view risky plays as irrational. We rather do nothing.

Besides explaining why our team may lose the game despite being aggressively fouled in the last moments (and draw some comfort from that), omission bias is important in other areas of our lives as well.

It can cause us to sit out on risky options. Risk works in tandem with rewards, it’s a trade-off. So, avoiding risk may mean you never get to enjoy substantial rewards. To reap rewards from risky situations, you must challenge your own omission bias.

Omission bias can also appear in our own work. You may find yourself deciding to do nothing over some other option because you are more worried about consequences from action than inaction.

As risk is everywhere, letting omission bias dictate your decisions leads to procrastination and indecision.

It may feel safer to be indecisive and not make a call but it really does carry consequences. Whether it's financial, ethical or social. But the good news is that there is a way out.

What can we do?

A simple technique is to ask yourself three very simple questions:

If I make this decision -

• What’s the worst that can happen?

• What is the likelihood of that happening?

• If that happens, what will I do about it?

What’s the worst that can happen?

By visualizing the benefits in the future you are transferring your “future self” back to today so that they (you) can make the decision in the moment.

It’s not sci-fi. It serves to bridge the mental gap we have between present and future. Professional golfers use the visualization technique when they are facing a tricky shot. It’s also taught in medical school to surgeons performing tricky operations. Therapists use it with patients undergoing rehabilitation programs. Some companies employ to help transform problematic cultures.

Visualizing serves to place yourself in that future situation, with all its benefits, and also to acknowledge your fear: the worst case that could happen.

What is the likelihood of that happening?

Once you narrow down on your fear(s) you can think more rationally about the chance of that happening. It’s probably very small. Which makes the whole decision seem smaller than what you built it up to be.

If that happens, what will I do about it?

Now, from the safety of your desk, you can think about your options of how to react to that bad scenario. Are there one or two that resonate well with you? Having options will make you feel more positive, more confident, less afraid to take action.


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