November 4 was a 24-hour roller-coaster day in British politics (see here for a great summary). Owen Paterson, the (now former) member of the parliament representing North Shropshire, was found guilty of breaking the rules for paid advocacy by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. It was recommended that Paterson be suspended from the The House of Commons for 30 sitting days but this punishment had to be put to vote in the Parliament before becoming effective.
Instead of accepting this and moving forward, Boris Johnson decided to take an aggressive action to protect Paterson: the government put forward an amendment to change the entire process and retrospectively apply the amendment to exonerate Paterson. This did not go well. There was a massive backlash and within a few hours the government had to withdraw the amendment and under pressure from everyone, Paterson resigned from parliament altogether. Johnson’s decision to act to cancel a 30-day suspension cost Paterson his job as MP and a catastrophic scandal of epic proportions for Johnson himself.
The Paterson scandal was, also, a wonderfully clear demonstration of an underappreciated fact from behavioural sciences: we (and other animals) are very keen to solve problems by acting; but we fail dramatically when sitting still and doing nothing turns out to have been the least damaging alternative.
One of the clearest demonstrations of this phenomenon was done by Marc Guitart-Masip in 2010. He compared how well human subjects could learn the association between “doing something” (e.g., pressing a button) versus “doing nothing” (e.g., withholding from pressing the button) and gaining a monetary reward versus avoiding losing money (see Figure 1 below).
Unsurprisingly, he found (see Figure 2 below) that humans quickly learned when to press a button to earn some money (condition 1). However, they were considerably and significantly worse at figuring out when they should withhold from pressing a button (i.e., do nothing) to avoid losing money (condition 4). Interestingly, it turned out people were even worse, in fact nearly hopeless, in learning when they should withhold from pressing the button in order to earn money (condition 3).
Marc’s experimental results give a clear picture of why it is so difficult, even for heads of state such as Boris Johnson, to figure out when “doing nothing” is our best option.