Overcoming 'Action Bias'

According to research, when people re­flect on their past performance they enhance the learning process and experience increased confidence in their skills.
Research has shown that when people re­flect on their experiences, they often boost their learning and confidence in their skills. But most people still value practicing an ac­tivity over reflecting on past performance. To maximize learning, individuals must overcome this “natural bias for action,” say Giada Di Stefano of HEC Paris; Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano of Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts; and Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in Chapel Hill.

The researchers asked individuals on Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace where workers offer a range of freelance services, to complete three sets of math puzzles. In a three-minute break after the first set, participants could choose either to write about the strategies they used in the first round or to practice on another set of puzzles. Eighty-two per­cent of participants chose to practice; the 18 percent who chose reflection performed better on the next two sets of puzzles.

In a second study, researchers asked one group to reflect and another group to practice after the first set of puzzles. A con­trol group watched an unrelated video. Not only did the reflection group perform better than the other two groups, but there also was no difference in performance between the practice group and the control.

The group conducted a similar field study with trainees at an India-based customer support office. Once again, those who were asked, at the end of their training, to reflect on what they learned scored about 22 percent higher on their final as­sessments than those who did not.

Too often, when people are trying to learn a task, they view reflection as a waste of time. Nothing could be farther from the truth, say these researchers. “Reflecting after completing tasks is no idle pursuit,” they write. “It can powerfully enhance the learning process, and it does so more than the accumulation of additional experience on the same task.”

The working paper “Learning by thinking: Overcoming the Bias for Action Through Reflection” can be read at ssrn.com/abstract=2414478.