Action-Inaction & Motivation

Liking Action, Disliking Inaction

My students and I have identified an intriguing positivity bias favoring action over inaction (e.g., Albarracín et al, 2008, 2011; McCulloch et al, 2012). Action denotes behaviors associated with energy expenditure and demand (e.g., running, solving an intellectual problem), and is contrasted with inaction (e.g., non-REM sleep) on the other end of the continuum. Naïve construal of action and inaction overlap with these semantic definitions but has a distinct aspect: A positive attitude (McCulloch, …, & Albarracín, 2012; Feldman & Albarracín, 2016; Sunderrajan & Albarracín, 2017). In the absence of specifications about the quality or nature of actions and inactions, people perceive action as more favorable than inaction. For example, pressing a button is perceived as more desirable than not pressing it, even though there is nothing intrinsically desirable about pressing a button. There are various psychological reasons for this bias. First, evolutionary pressures working towards the survival of the group probably lead to socializing for this bias. Second, psychophysiological and neural processes conflate positive valence with approach and negative valence with avoidance. Third, there are cultural determinants of the action bias.  First, vertical cultures encourage proactive contributions and thus liking for action. Second, a Judeo-Christian ethic linking work to virtue can overgeneralize to the inappropriate attribution of positivity to any action.


The findings about an action positivity bias are important because a variety of behaviors that are socially beneficial involve inactions (energy savings, reducing aggression, increasing rest). Therefore, a detailed understanding of these issues can contribute to important societal outcomes. Another key finding in my work is that the action-positivity bias is connected to an intentionality bias by which action is perceived as more intentional than inaction. Fortunately, individuals are able to override these defaults and can perceive inaction as intentional and develop inaction intentions.


My contributions in this area are also connected to theorizing about some beneficial effects of inaction. First, inaction goals can increase individuals’ openness to attitude change (Albarracín et al., 2008; 2011). When people who have an action goal expect to receive a persuasive message, the goal induces activation of prior attitudes in the domain being considered. Consequently, action goals decrease the probability of new information being effective because the new information is filtered through the lens of prior attitudes. The time to change is then the time when message recipients are motivated to be passive rather than active.