“Don’t hide your head like the ostrich”, we usually tell those who try to escape from the problems by avoiding them. Although it’s not true that ostriches hide their heads in the sand before danger, this myth so strong in the popular imagination that it gave a name to a cognitive bias that we have all suffered from time to time: the Ostrich Effect.
What is the Ostrich Effect?
The Ostrich Effect is a cognitive bias that implies the tendency to avoid all the negative information that we catalog, more or less consciously, as “dangerous”. It ‘s a mechanism of selective attention of information through which we avoid the one that has negative connotations for us. In practice, it would be ignoring risky situations or the signals of them, pretending they don’t exist.
The term was coined by researchers Dan Galai and Orly Sade, who monitored the behavior of investors in the stock market and noticed that these tended to review more often the economic indicators when the stock market went well, but when it went badly, they monitored lesse the data. They also discovered that this phenomenon is exacerbated when we make a decision that contains a high level of uncertainty.
Obviously, the Ostrich Effect doesn’t apply only to investors. A study conducted in the United Kingdom revealed that only 10% of people who are concerned about their finances monitor them – and do so only once a month. The remaining 90% don’t even check their accounts, which prevents them from taking measures to protect their economy.
The Ostrich Effect is not relegated to the economic level but extends practically to all spheres of our life. Another study conducted at the University of Minnesota, for example, revealed that 20% of people who signed up for a weight loss program never weighed themselves, indicating that they avoided the confirming signs of the problem.
To understand this phenomenon we don’t even have to resort to scientific studies, there are difficult moments in life when we just want to “disappear” and wait for everything to be resolved. We like to imagine that nothing is happening and that problems will be solved alone. It’s a fantasy that, in a certain way, calms and comforts us. Worst of all, on many occasions, we are not fully aware that we are hiding our heads in the sand.
When do we act like the ostrich?
There are different situations that can lead us to be victims of the Ostrich Effect:
1. When we lose our way. Sometimes, when we lose our way in life, disorientation and uncertainty can be so great that we prefer not to know where we are. We avoid reflecting on how we got there and where we should direct our steps. In this way we give in the control of our life, we leave the decisions entirely in the hands of the circumstances.
2. When we have to deal with unpleasant negative situations. There are circumstances that have such an emotional impact that we come to perceive them as a danger to our “ego”. In those cases, it is often tempting to hide your head under the ground and pretend that nothing is happening.
3. When we don’t have the psychological resources to face problems. Sometimes, there are situations that overwhelm us psychologically. When we don’t have the necessary psychological tools, we don’t have enough confidence in ourselves or we have not developed resilience, we prefer to ignore the problem and imagine that everything is fine.
Why do we prefer to ignore some problems instead of facing them?
We are victims of the Ostrich Effect because the problem we have to face represents an incongruence with our attitudes, expectations and/or beliefs. Since we avoid cognitive dissonance and prefer to maintain a positive image of ourselves, if that problem forces us to rethink some of our aspects and leads us to recognize that we were wrong, we might prefer to avoid it.
People who suffer the Ostrich Effect receive relevant information, but intentionally decide not to evaluate its implications, rejecting that data. In other words: we avoid or even deny information when it forces us to confront and internalize disappointments that we prefer to avoid.
In any case, the Ostrich Effect is a psychological mechanism that we activate to try escape from the negative feelings associated with that problem or conflict. If we ignore the problem and avoid thinking about its implications, we will also avoid the negative feelings that it usually generates. It’s a kind of psychological shield, although that doesn’t mean it’s an adaptive strategy.
Not by much avoiding it, the problem disappears earlier
Ignoring problems, pretending they don’t exist, will not solve them. On the contrary, the Ostrich Effect can generate serious consequences in our lives.
• Make worse decisions. By not accepting the existence of the problem, we will not actively collect information that allows us weigh all the options and make the best possible decision. As a result, it’s likely that circumstances will decide in our place or we will be forced to decide when it’s too late. And when we are on the ropes, it’s difficult to make good decisions.
• Permanent unhappiness. It is said that ignorance is happiness, but it’s not. Ignoring doesn’t mean not knowing, but avoid intentionally data and information. Ignoring is a conscious and intentional act, which means that this problem or conflict, although we pretend it doesn’t exist, is still active in some part of our mind, generating tension, uncertainty and, of course, unhappiness.
• Snowball effect. One of the most ominous consequences of the Ostrich Effect is that it can become a snowball that grows as it rolls down the mountain, dragging whatever it finds on its path. A person who doesn’t undergo an important medical examination because he fears a bad result, will eventually make his situation worse. Running away from problems usually only serves to aggravate them.
• Impossibility to reach the goals. A study carried out in Finland revealed that people who plan to save energy, but don’t supervise the consumption of electricity in their home, are not able to act to reduce their consumption. Also, a person who ignores conflicts in his relationship, cannot accurately determine the problems and, therefore, loses opportunities to solve them while still on time. If we ignore a problem, we will be unable to objectively analyze the situation in which we find ourselves and, therefore, we will find it much more difficult to reach our goals. In fact, the likelihood of deviating from our objectives and engaging in irrelevant activities increases.
How to avoid the Ostrich Effect?
In “Parallel Lives”, Plutarch wrote: “The first messenger who gave the news about Lucullus’ arrival was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he cut off his head because of his pains; and without any man daring to carry more information, and without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat down as the war grew around him, listening only to those who flattered him.”
Be aware that hiding your head to deny reality is not an adaptive coping mechanism is the first step to avoid the Ostrich Effect. We need to understand that, no matter how hard we try to hide reality, it will not change, simply because there is no hiding place big enough. The truth doesn’t change according to our ability to manage it. The only way to eliminate problems is to accept them and overcome them.
In some cases, when we’re too emotionally involved and the situation scares us, it may be advisable to ask for help from an external observer, a person who can assess the situation more objectively and tell us if we are really avoiding the problem. Then we need to apply radical acceptance. Only when we accept what happens, will we be ready to face the problem.
There is no doubt that taking the head out of the hole can be frightening, but facing the problems will allow us to restore inner peace. Furthermore, if we take advantage of this “negative” experience, we will emerge stronger from it and trust much more our ability to solve problems. The interesting thing is that the more difficulties we face in life, the lower the tendency to hide our heads.
Webb, T. L. et. Al. (2013) ‘The Ostrich Problem’: Motivated Avoidance or Rejection of Information About Goal Progress. Social and Persnality Psychology Compass; 7(11): 794-807.
Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., & Benn, Y. (2013). ‘The ostrich problem’: Motivated avoidance or rejection of information about goal progress. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(11), 794-807.
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