What is the omission bias?

The omission bias causes us to view actions as worse than omissions in situations where they both have adverse consequences and similar intentions.

It probably occurs because an activity that leads to dire consequences seems more immoral than omission leading to the same outcome.

That is, causing harm is worse and more evident than allowing it to happen. The omission bias is also related to losses being weighted more heavily than gains.

If we fail to act and this results in a bad outcome, we think of it as a missed opportunity for gaining something. However, if we do act and the results are negative, we consider this a loss.

How does the omission bias influence my life?

In certain situations, we assess someone else’s behavior by underplaying the insidiousness of inaction.

Most of our decisions do not question the status quo due to the omission bias, and we rely on the current approaches to avoid any risk.

Consequently, we become trapped in the existing practices regardless of their performance.

The default option is usually our preference, so we often let others command our decisions.

Many policymakers and companies take advantage of the omission bias by designing a process where the default options fit their preferences.

What can I do about it?

We can think about the consequences of our passivity, rather than assuming that our inaction is inconsequential.

We must always consider the impact of our inactivity while making any major decisions.

Our accountability must be extended to omissions, instead of only being restricted to actions. This will allow us to maximize our proactivity level.

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“Immunization and Infectious Diseases”, by Healthy People
  • Despite progress, approximately 42,000 adults and 300 children in the United States die annually from vaccine-preventable diseases.
“NBA referees are biased”, by Kurt Helin
  • There is evidence that referees in professional basketball call fewer fouls at the end of tight games to avoid mistakes that could affect the final result.
“Looking Behind Bad Decisions”, by Manda Salls
  • Organ donation is higher in countries where it is the default option (86%-100%). In the United States, donations are an explicit act, and the lack of donations costs 6,000 lives each year.
“Enlarging the Societal Pie Through Wise Legislation: A Psychological Perspective”, by Jonathan Baron, Max H. Bazerman and Katherine Shonk
  • Most governments have an inefficient decision-making system because it neglects the omission bias as a critical component of human behavior.
“Intuitions about Penalties and Compensation in the Context of Tort Law”, by Jonathan Baron and Ilana Ritov
  • Compensations and penalties when a person is injured are higher if it has been produced by action rather than omission.
“Action Bias among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers: The Case of Penalty Kicks”, by Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer H. Azar, Ilana Ritov, Yael Keidar-Levin and Galit Schein
  • During a penalty, the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s center. However, goalkeepers almost always jump right or left because of a reverse effect of the omission bias.
“Intention and the omission bias: omissions perceived as nondecisions”, by Johanna H. Kordes-de Vaal
  • People perceive that the outcome of an omission is less intended than the outcome of a commission, regardless of the severity of their consequences.