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Let’s say you’re walking down the sidewalk near a busy street and you see someone who is texting and not paying attention to where they’re going. There is some space between the two of you, but certainly not so much that you wouldn’t be able to stop them from walking into traffic. As you see that person preparing to take their final step onto the road, you stand there in silence.
Now, let’s say you’re on that same sidewalk near someone who is also mindlessly strolling. You catch up with them, and just as you’re about to pass them, you shove them into the busy street, watching them tumble to their demise.
In which of these scenarios did you make the more harmful decision? They both resulted in the same outcome–the death of a pedestrian.
If you believe that pushing someone into traffic would be the more harmful decision, you’re thinking in terms of the omission bias.
Like other cognitive biases, the omission bias is an error in judgement that impacts the decisions that you make. Cognitive biases occur when you process information incorrectly due to problems with attention, memory, attribution, and other misjudgements.
It’s true that our brains are powerful, but they’re subject to limitations, so they take shortcuts when to simplify the endless amount of information that we are subjected to each day.
In this article, we are going to look at an in-depth definition of the omission bias and how it can negatively impact your life. After we define this cognitive bias, we will look at 7 examples of the omission bias that can negatively impact your life and what you can do to overcome its influence.
Let’s get started.
What Is the Omission Bias?
The omission bias is the belief that harm caused by inaction is more acceptable than harm caused by action–even if the outcome is the same. Often, people consider harmful outcomes that were caused by action to be worse than equally harmful results caused by omission.
While the difference between the two situations may seem subtle, an action that directly leads to dire consequences (for example, pushing someone into traffic) seems more vengeful than not acting (omission) to prevent someone from accidentally walking into traffic and therefore saving their life.
Data suggests that the omission bias is largely rooted in the difference between direct vs. indirect causation. Causing harm directly is judged more harshly by others than causing that same harm indirectly–as you’re likely not the sole factor that could potentially prevent or reduce the harm.
The omission bias occurs for a number of reasons and the justifications for one situation feeling less malignant than another are plentiful as well, but upon analyzing the rationale, it’s easy to see how this method of thinking is a cognitive bias.
Let’s first talk a bit about why people prefer inaction to action. First, people often don’t want to “go out on a limb” or take risks due to a fear of either failing or doing the wrong thing and then either appearing to be foolish to onlookers or making a bad situation even worse. Taking action is clearly more obvious than doing nothing, so it’s easier to fly under the radar, should you choose to sit back and refrain from getting into other people’s business.
Choosing to avoid taking action in situations where you could reduce harm or prevent a disaster displays an implicit sense of approval. This is similar to the idea of looking but not seeing, or hearing, but not listening. Omission bias stems from a basic view that one should avoid any direct cause of harm, but it’s important to note that harm that is caused in indirect ways can also be prevented.
For example, if you saw a group of leaders at work act in an unethical way, would you do something about it? Or would you choose to remain silent and allow the leaders to abuse their power? Considering these are the people who control whether you’re employed or not, do you think that taking action would end up being a critical mistake that could cost you your job?
Assuming their unethical behavior doesn’t impact you directly, you probably wouldn’t take the risk of stirring the pot. And whether you spoke up or not, chances are, the unethical behavior isn’t going to stop, as it’s likely an issue of organizational silence.
Studies show that a large number of businesses have an organizational culture in which most employees are aware of some private truths within the business, yet remain silent of these facts to keep the peace at work. Some organizations go so far as to let it be known to their employees that they shouldn’t challenge corporate policies, while others make employees feel reluctant to speak up by being intolerant of internal objections. More on this in a minute.
In terms of the omission bias, those who are directly doing the corrupt business are making a bigger violation than you are by knowing about corrupt business and just not saying anything. But others would argue that by working for the company, you’re endorsing this behavior and are therefore causing equal harm.
Let’s look at some examples.
7 Omission Bias Examples That Negatively Impact Your Life
1. Staying Silent in the Workplace
Continuing on our previous note of employees choosing inaction over action when it comes to potentially making a positive difference for their company, this type of corporate climate is characterized by a belief that favors the omission bias: Taking action to fix organizational problems isn’t worth the effort due to the prospect of losing one’s job.
Employees weigh the outcomes of taking action vs. not taking action and come up with the same result: nothing will change. So, even though there’s an opportunity to make a moral decision, doing so would come at a high cost.
Research shows a few ways in which the omission bias can negatively impact your life in the workplace, and in order to counter this, there is strength in numbers:
All of this suggests that having an omission-bias mindset in a professional environment can compromise an organization’s ability to make positive decisions or beneficial changes. If you’re in a leadership position, this issue can be eradicated by encouraging input from lower-level and minority employees to increase the likelihood of necessary critical analysis for effective decision making and organizational growth.
2. Witnessing Crime
The last example was an illustration of how the omission bias can negatively impact your life in a way that’s mainly systematic, but, this bias can be primarily a moral issue as well.
Let’s say you and a friend are in line at the grocery store and you notice an elderly lady drops a $20 bill on the ground.
In situation A, you nudge your friend and point to the money, suggesting he takes it himself. You, of course, choose not to alert the lady of the theft. In situation B, you lean down and quietly slip the $20 bill into your own pocket.
Which is worse?
In situation A, you didn’t have physical contact with the cash and you merely brought it to your friend’s attention, meaning you were the indirect cause of the theft. But in situation B, you physically stole the cash. Both incidents resulted in the theft of money from an elderly lady.
When considering the omission bias, you’re less guilty in situation A than you are in situation B because actively contributing to the theft is considered to be worse than your alternate passive contrbtion.
The issue of vaccinating children seems to come up in a lot of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, and the omission bias is no exception. The root of most parents’ reluctance in vaccinating their children is the potential for harm or side effects from the vaccine. However, research shows the potential danger of keeping your children vulnerable to contracting a preventable disease is much greater than the potential side effects of vaccinations.
Some parents are reluctant to vaccinate their children due to the known risk of harmful side effects, while also recognizing the risk that their child could die from the disease the vaccination is preventing. But parents also tend to overvalue the possibility of side effects caused by vaccines because if the vaccine damages their child’s health, they feel at fault and assume they are responsible for hurting their own child because they consented to the vaccine.
Parents feel better about themselves when they don’t directly cause their child’s death, but either way, children can die.
What parents often don’t consider is that missing the opportunity to get their child vaccinated can also end up harming their child. But due to the omission bias, people underestimate the potential negative consequences of their inaction. Refusing vaccinations may lead to greater harms that affect more people overall.
Not all vaccine-preventable diseases are the same when it comes to mortality rates and how contagious they are. But no matter the risk of the disease in question, you have to determine if you’re willing to take that risk. No one expects someone in their family will end up being one of the 42,000 adults or 300 children who die each year in the U.S. from vaccine-preventable diseases.
While most vaccination-preventable diseases are rare in the U.S., they’re still prevalent in other places around the world, and people who travel without being vaccinated can bring these diseases home to the U.S., which can put all unvaccinated people at severe risk of illness.
Even though non-vaccinators are a minority, their inaction can lead to epidemics, which can be seen in the history of whooping cough epidemics and pertussis vaccination rates.
The omission bias in this situation is often smaller than it is in other cases where harm is more imminent. Because it’s common to get vaccinations, even though doing so is coupled with a small risk of severe consequences, people are used to the idea of vaccinations–just as people are used to the idea of taking drugs to treat a serious illness that have a potential for dangerous side effects. Furthermore, there is a longer causal chain between the effect of vaccinations and drugs than in situations where there is a high omission bias. Such as…
4.The Trolley Hypothetical
You’ve probably heard of this hypothetical moral dilemma of a trolley car: a trolley is going full speed ahead down path A, where five innocent workers are working on the tracks. You have a lever that can redirect the path of the trolley to path B, where one worker remains on the tracks. Regardless of which path the trolley goes, people will be killed instantly.
If you do nothing (omission), five people will be killed. If you flip the lever (action), you will directly be causing the death of one person. This hypothetical situation can be applied to many real life scenarios. Here are some things to think about and some relevant situations the relate to the trolley hypothetical:
After you think about this dilemma in more detail, the answer may not be as simple as you once believed it to be.
5. Police Brutality
Think about the recent case of George Floyd, where a man was murdered at the hands of a police officer. The policeman who actively caused Floyd’s death by kneeling on his neck triggered outrage across the country through his lack of moral agency.
But what about the police officers who didn’t interfere with this heinous act? Are they not equally responsible for Floyd’s death due to their inaction?
The law displays an omission bias by not enacting a law requiring people to act to save a life when possible, yet negligence is penalized when someone has unsuccessfully attempted to save a life.
6. In Court
Consider two witness testimonies: one witness left out some critical details when telling the court what they knew about the case they were testifying about, and another witness lied about their case. Both testimonies ultimately lead to the imprisonment of the person who was being prosecuted in their respective case—although neither was guilty.
Which witness made the more harmful choice? The one who lied to get someone put in jail or the one who stayed silent and allowed the jury to make their own wrong decision?
Many believe that, at face value, lying to the court is more immoral than leaving out pertinent information. But both situations led to the same outcome.
7. The Under-Performing Employee
There are often instances in which companies have an employee who isn’t quite keeping up with the rest of the team, or possibly whose “areas for improvement” are extensive. However, perhaps the employer doesn’t want to have to pay for unemployment for the employee if they let them go, or maybe they don’t want to increase their turnover rate by firing the employee.
So instead, they make the working environment very difficult for the employee to function in by setting unreasonable goals for him or adding several additional projects to his workload with the hopes that the employee will choose to quit or move on to a different job themselves.
This way, the company doesn’t have to deal with the employee anymore, but they didn’t directly cause the employee to leave by firing him—they indirectly caused the departure through creating a difficult work environment. When the employee chooses to leave, the manager can then be relieved from the situation without feeling directly at fault.
This manager is thinking in terms of the omission bias by making himself feel less guilty for the departure of the employee.
How to Overcome Omission Bias
The best way to overcome a willingness to accept harm from inaction (or the default) is to always keep the cost of inaction in mind while making a major decision.
Of course you will worry about failure when you set out to start a new venture. But you can only compare where you are now in life to the possibility of failure and its potential consequences. Compare the cost of staying in your mediocre position–where you are now–to the possibility of living out your dream by taking a chance.
Final Thoughts on Omission Bias Examples That Negatively Impact Your Life
Keep a close eye on your choices. It’s easy to spot action, but less obvious to detect inaction. Watch your actions and decisions, but definitely look out for situations in which you’re sticking with the status quo.
Hopefully these examples of the omission bias have opened your eyes to this cognitive bias that can negatively impact your thinking and decision making. Be proactive in everything you do and accept accountability so you can live your life with more of a purpose.
Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.