Have You Ever?
Have you ever avoided information that you didn’t want to know, even if it was really important? Maybe you got a grade back on a test that you didn’t want to check, or someone gave you feedback that you didn’t want to hear. Whatever it was, it was vital for you to know, but you didn’t want to know it.
This avoidance of information is called the Ostrich Effect. The primary reason people ignore information is to avoid the possible negative emotional impact that it may bring, even if it’s imperative to know and ignorance will cause even greater issues in the future.
The Ostrich Effect is a cognitive bias in which people close themselves off from information they perceive to be potentially emotionally harmful despite the information’s importance.
The Ostrich Effect has been primarily studied in the behavior of financial investors. Studies show that when financial markets are performing well, investors tend to check their portfolios more frequently, and when markets are not doing well, investors will avoid monitoring their portfolios. This avoidance of important information is a form of self-preservation. The investors don’t want to suffer the emotional damage that negative information threatens, so they simply avoid it. Rationally, they know they should be aware of their financial status, but the anticipation of emotional distress outweighs rationality.
People have a variety of reasons for using the Ostrich Effect. People may use the Ostrich Effect when the information interferes with their self-enhancement, or their positive impressions of themselves. For example, say your friend thinks they’re really good at math, but they struggled on the latest test. They may avoid looking at their final grade because they don’t want to acknowledge any evidence that they weren’t actually as skilled as they thought. The effect is also commonly used to ignore information necessary to monitor the progress towards goals because it’s anticipated to be emotionally painful. An example of this would be if a marathon runner knows they ran slower than usual one practice, so they don’t check their time. The Ostrich Effect occurs most often when one is emotionally invested in the situation at hand.
Though not as well researched, the Ostrich Effect has been observed in many fields. People avoid seeking treatment for a health issue or a diagnosis for a child struggling in school. Others refuse to pursue doubts regarding a person’s integrity. When making a serious commitment, most won’t investigate warning signs. The Ostrich Effect can influence any aspect of one's life.
People use a wide variety of tactics to avoid information, including inattention, biased interpretation, physical avoidance, and forgetting. Inattention is a lack of attention paid to the information one is avoiding, even if it’s readily available. If one still gets exposed to the information, biased interpretation allows them to then interpret it in a way that removes all the negative implications it may have had. Physical avoidance is the most common form of avoidance. Simply abstain from any tangible thing that may contain or communicate the unwanted information, like a newspaper or a bill. Should all these other methods fail, the Ostrich Effect can still occur when someone fails to retain the negative information after it has been mentally processed, or forgets it.
The Ostrich Effect isn’t necessarily always a negative thing. Though it certainly can hold people back from being fully engaged and prepared for life’s difficulties, it can also help streamline decision-making. If someone has already effectively researched and obtained the data they need to make a sound choice, they may avoid new information. In such cases, the Ostrich Effect can block out excessive information that would overwhelm and over-complicate the situation. If a decision needs to be made rapidly, the Ostrich Effect is actually quite helpful.
Being aware of the Ostrich Effect can help people address their subconscious behaviors and ultimately become more aware and in control. Anyone is susceptible to cognitive biases. To avoid the Ostrich Effect, you have to acknowledge there is information available that is important to sound decision-making. Next, develop strategies to address and incorporate the data effectively. There are many ways to do this, including creating psychological distance between yourself and the information at hand, or establishing a consistent and predictable way to learn the information. Though it may prevent emotional discomfort in the short term, the Ostrich Effect often results in worse issues in the long run. Burying your head in the sand isn’t going to get you anywhere.