The Why #80: Why do we drive through backstreets when we know it’s not faster?

By Dan Monheit 16.02.24

4 min readFeb 15, 2024

Question submitted by Jan, Burnley

As a Melbournian who once tried driving up Punt Road at 8:15 on a Thursday morning, I can relate. There’s truly nothing more soul crushing than being confined to your car, gridlocked, watching the minutes (and your life) tick by. At least in the movies people get out of their cars and talk to the other good looking Angelenos who have found themselves in the same predicament. Sigh.

So of course you look for shortcuts, and boy are they tempting. You know these streets like the back of your hand. If you just took a sharp right and detoured down that residential alleyway you might just have enough time to get a coffee before your 9am.

What you’re failing to consider, Jan, is that those back roads are full of one-way streets, dead ends, single lanes, slower speed limits, even slower pedestrians and a reversing garbage truck with P-plates for good measure. Maybe it’s not so efficient after all…

Of course, it’s a real ‘Sliding Doors’ moment that could dictate the rest of your day, your week, your year! So what will it be, Jan? Spoiler, we already know (and your indicator is on).

Action Bias

Action Bias refers to our tendency to prioritise action over inaction in a given situation, especially in moments where we lack control or comfort. Put simply, we’re really bad at doing nothing, even when doing nothing will likely lead to a better outcome.

The term ‘Action Bias’ was first coined in Patt and Zeckhauser’s 2000 paper ‘Action Bias and Environmental Decisions’. Within it, Patt and Zeckauser put forth three reasons why our urge to act is so strong:

  • Firstly, we’ve evolved to favour action in order to survive. Our earliest ancestors needed to fight, hunt, scavenge, defend, move — basically anything but let the world play out around them. If instead, we’d evolved to be a little more chill, we may never have made it past the first ice age.
  • Secondly, we’re suckers for rewards and recognition. Good things come to those who wait, but better things come to those who go get ’em. Nobody ever got promoted by flying under the radar, right?
  • Finally, we’re wired to learn. Since birth, we’ve been on a never-ending quest to test and learn in new situations ​​in order to better handle them in the future. Sitting idle doesn’t do much in our pursuit of greater knowledge.

We see Action Bias pop up all the time in our day-to-day lives. It’s why we’re quick to over-trade shares rather than give our investments time to play out. It’s why we swap supermarket check-out lines even though the one we just left has really started moving. It’s why coaches frequently sub-out players in the heat of a game instead of following the original plan. We really are a bunch of impatient control freaks.

Now back to you Jan. It’s not surprising that when given the choice between sitting pretty with Google Maps and backstreeting like a crazy lady for a shot at a latte, the coffee is winning every time.

For Challenger Brands, it pays to know that even your most polite and understanding customer is actually hard wired to be impatient. Look for ways to give people a sense of progress, whether it’s actual (‘your call has advanced in the queue’), literal (‘click here for an immediate call back’) or virtual (‘you’re now only 30 points away from achieving gold status’). If you can help them feel like they’re making fast progress, they’ll be inclined to help you do the same.

Behaviourally Yours,

Dan Monheit

PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check why our stomach sinks when someone tells us they ‘want to talk’ here.

Forwarded this? Subscribe to join thousands of others who receive The Why fortnightly.

Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about Behavioural Science with the Bad Decisions podcast.

Got a question?
Is there something you’ve always wondered about?
Send it through to

Want more?
Check Dan Monheit’s chat with Mumbrella on why challenger brands can’t afford to run the category playbook and how Hardhat is bringing different ideas that work over, under and around category conventions.

The Why, The Book
If you’re a fan of having your curly questions answers, secure your copy of the newly released Amazon #1 Best Seller ‘The Why, The Book’ by Dan Monheit here.




We’re an independent creative agency helping brands capitalise on the why, when, where, what and how of human behaviour.