The Illusion of Action


This morning, I do my usual coffee and newspapers with a tad of reading through my chemistry notes, all the ‘Standard Enthalpy Change’s and ‘Bond Energies’. Allow me to give you a glimpse of today’s plan— after publishing this post, it’d be time to get changed and prepared to head out for a movie with a very small fraction of the best orientation group followed by a visit to the secondary school closest to heart. I dare say, little in the many who have a break today from the exam week would lead this day the same way. Because ‘tomorrow we have an exam, you’re supposed to be studying’. 

This entire week, in fact every other exam week, I rarely spend most of my time studying. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I’m one of those with the flair of scoring for exams without revising a single bit. It’s more because I study consistently before the exam week arrives and in the week itself, my priority goes to staying calm and relaxing, because that’s the state in which I’d like for my abilities to be assessed. Not in a state of panic, nor stress, and especially not a burn out, but my normal state. And I don’t think cramming in information is effective because the faster it goes in, the faster it gets out. (most of the time) 

There’s this thing, it’s called the Illusion of Action and it convinces us that we are doing something effective just because we are doing something. Let me attempt to explain that, I’m not very good with examples for this one– say you saw a stranger injured, lying on the floor and bleeding, passersby already crowding around and calling the paramedics. You’d have to walk over, walking away may make you feel guilty for a long while. But if you think about it clearly, walking over wouldn’t help the situation in any way because you’re not a paramedic, nor a magical fairy that can cure this injured stranger. But you’d have to walk over. Because you feel the need to be doing something. In our context today, for example, flipping through your notes and browsing through the file that you’re not really reading, just looking at, isn’t actually going to significantly change the course of the examination tomorrow. But you have to.You can’t just sit around and do nothing, nor go out and have fun with your friends on this day of a break because you feel the need to be doing something. 

That’s the illusion of action. When you feel the need to do something, although rationally speaking, it will have almost no effect at all on the outcome. Another level of that is when you attribute any positive outcomes to your action, say ‘I did well in this exam because I revised the day before.’ One day, I challenge you to do away with an action that is really just an action that you do irrationally to console yourself about the outcome and spend the time doing something else instead. The similarities of the outcome may surprise you. 

But of course if today, being one day before a paper that you barely prepared for or are unprepared for, studying today would possibly be the most rational thing to do. Good luck and study hard! 


2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Action

  1. I thought of attribution when I read this “…it convinces us that we are doing something effective just because we are doing something”. Trying to find cause and effect, attaching meaning to behaviour, sometimes even when there is none. I cannot fit this into the illusion of action, however, because the later example of doing well in an exam (effect) and revising the day before (cause) has temporal precedence (this is also an example of making an external attribution) and has already occurred in that indisputable sequence, whereas in the first example of the injured stranger (cause being walking over and effect is becoming somebody of use in the situation), the cause has yet to occur.

  2. Reading before the examinations will give you a better chance of gaining an insight for the subject that you’re taking, really! It’s also really good for memory retention, at least for the exam’s sake, and considering the limits of our memory.

    All you’ve got to do when you’re revising just before the exam is to actually read your notes and your work – that way, there won’t be any illusion of action. It can be useful if done the right way!

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