Ostrich Effect: Ignoring bad news won't make them go away

“Don't bury your head in the sand like an ostrich”, we usually say to those who try to escape problems by avoiding them. While it is not true that ostriches hide their heads in the sand in the face of danger, this myth has taken root so deeply in the popular imagination that it has even served to give a name to a cognitive bias that we have all suffered at least once: l 'Ostrich Effect.

What is the Ostrich Effect?

The ostrich effect is a cognitive bias that implies the tendency to avoid all negative information that we categorize, more or less consciously, as "dangerous". It is a mechanism of selective attention of information through which we avoid everything that has negative connotations for us. In practice, it would be to ignore the risk situations or the signs of the same by pretending that they do not exist.

The term was coined by researchers Dan Galai and Orly Sade, who observed investor behavior in the stock market and noted that they tended to monitor economic indicators more frequently when the stock market was doing well, but when it was bad, they often overlooked the data. They also found that this phenomenon is exacerbated when we make a decision that includes a high degree of uncertainty.

Of course, the ostrich effect doesn't just apply to investors. A study conducted in the UK found that only 10% of people concerned about their finances monitor them, and they only do so once a month. The remaining 90% don't even check their accounts, which prevents them from taking steps to protect their money.

The ostrich effect is not relegated to the economic level but extends to practically all spheres of life. Another study conducted at the University of Minnesota, for example, found that 20% of people enrolled in a weight loss program had never weighed themselves, indicating that they avoided the confirmatory signs of the problem.

To understand this phenomenon we do not 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 the problems are solving themselves. It is a fantasy that, in a certain way, calms and comforts us. Worse still, on many occasions, we are not even fully aware that we are burying our heads in the sand.

When do we act like an ostrich?

There are several situations that can lead us to be victims of the ostrich effect:

1. When we lose the compass. Sometimes, when we lose our bearings in life, the 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 next steps. In this way we give up control of our life, we leave decisions entirely in the hands of circumstances.

2. When we have to face negative situations. There are circumstances that have such an emotional impact that we come to perceive them as a danger to our selves. In these cases, we are often tempted to bury our heads in the ground by pretending that nothing is happening.

3. When we don't have the psychological resources to deal with problems. Sometimes there are situations that overwhelm us psychologically. When we do not have the necessary psychological tools, do not have sufficient self-confidence or 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 face represents an inconsistency with our attitudes, expectations and / or beliefs. Since we avoid cognitive dissonance and prefer to maintain a positive image of ourselves, if this problem forces us to rethink some of our aspects and leads us to recognize that we are wrong, we may prefer to avoid it.

People who experience the ostrich effect receive relevant information, but intentionally decide not to evaluate the implications, rejecting that data. In other words: we avoid or even deny information when it forces us to confront and internalize the disappointments we would prefer to avoid.

In any case, the ostrich effect is a psychological mechanism we activate to try to escape 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 it usually generates. It's a kind of psychological shield, although that doesn't mean it's an adaptive strategy.

If you avoid it, the problem won't go away any faster

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 to evaluate all options and make the best possible decision. As a result, circumstances are likely to decide for us or we will be forced to decide when we are cornered. And when we're on the ropes, it's hard to make good decisions.

• Permanent unhappiness. We often say "ah ... blessed ignorance" thinking that it is synonymous with happiness, but ignoring does not mean not knowing, that is "ignorance". Ignoring is a conscious and intentional act of avoidance, which means that this problem or conflict, although we pretend it does not exist, is still active in some parts of our mind, generating tension, uncertainty and, of course, unhappiness.

• Snowball effect. One of the most disturbing consequences of the ostrich effect is that it can become a snowball that grows as it rolls down the mountain, becoming an avalanche that drags everything in its path with it. A person who does not undergo a major medical exam because he fears a bad result will end up making his situation worse. Running away from problems only makes them worse.

• Inability to achieve goals. A study conducted in Finland showed that people who plan to save energy but do not control the consumption of electricity in their home are unable to take action to reduce consumption. In addition, a person who ignores conflicts in his relationship cannot accurately determine problems and, therefore, will lose opportunities to resolve them while there is still time. If we ignore a problem, we will not be able to objectively analyze the situation in which we find ourselves and, therefore, we will find it much more difficult to achieve our goals. Doing so increases the likelihood of deviating from our goals and engaging in irrelevant activities.

How to avoid the ostrich effect?

In “Parallel Lives”, Plutarch wrote: “The first messenger who gave the news of the arrival of Lucullus was so far from pleasing Tigrane that he cut off his head; and with no man daring to bring more information, Tigranes sat down as the war grew around him, listening only to those who flattered him ”.

Being aware that hiding your head to deny reality is not an adaptive coping mechanism is the first step to avoiding the ostrich effect. We must understand that no matter how hard we try to hide reality, it will not change, simply because there is no hiding place large enough. The truth does not change based on our ability to handle it. The only way to eliminate problems is to accept and overcome them.

In some cases, when we are too emotionally involved and the situation scares us, it may be advisable to ask for help from an outside observer, a person who can assess the situation more objectively and tell us if we are really avoiding the problem. So we have to apply radical acceptance. Only when we accept what will happen will we be ready to face the problem.

There is no doubt that getting our heads off the sand can scare us, but facing problems will allow us to regain inner peace. Furthermore, if we take advantage of this “negative” experience, we will come out strengthened and will rely much more on our ability to solve problems. And the more difficulties we face in life, the less tendency to hide our heads.

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