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The Ostrich Effect

January 11, 2018

 

First things first: despite any cartoons you might’ve seen, ostriches don’t try to hide from danger by burying their heads in the sand. For one thing, they don’t need to: your average ostrich can run forty miles an hour—that’s faster than Usain Bolt (28 mph)—and they don’t use that speed to win footraces. The tall, gangly creatures do sometimes stick their heads in the sand, but that’s not a fear behavior; that’s the bird using its beak to gently rearrange its eggs, tucked away safe in a dug-out nest.

 

Incidentally, did you know that the ostrich’s closest relative, the emu, is so fierce that in 1932, Australian farmers requested military assistance against the local emu population? And that the Australian military sent down troops, armed with machine guns, who were still unable to bring the emus to heel? It’s called the Emu War, and it is an actual thing that happened.

 

Maybe you already knew that. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you knew it once, and then forgot, because we are all bombarded with tremendous amounts of information every day, and at some point, if we want to live a coherent life, we need to decide what to commit to memory (addresses, the route to work) and what to discard (offbeat anecdotes about large flightless birds.)

 

Or, if you are, say, emotionally invested in the dignity of the Australian army, maybe you had another reason to discard it.

 

We as a species tend to avoid data that makes us feel bad, shutting it out any way we can. Behavioral economists call this “information aversion.” People who watched a lot of whimsical bird cartoons also call it the “ostrich effect.”

 

In a recent episode of NPR's The Hidden Brain, Josh Tasoff, an assistant professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University, outlined the problem to host Shankar Vedentam. “A person should never avoid information because information can never hurt a decision,” he says. But of course, we do. People tend to check their portfolios less often when the stock market is down, Tasoff notes.

 

It isn’t about trying to build a honed-down, coherent view of the world; it’s about trying to escape info that might cause pain. On some level, this is understandable. There’s only so many hours you can devote to following the latest devastating natural disaster on the nightly news—we all reach a limit.

 

The problem occurs when these willful blind spots start to affect our daily lives, because, like the bird in the cartoon, just because you can’t see a problem doesn’t mean it can’t see you.

 

How many businesses have been struck low because the CEO remained in steadfast denial of any issues? How many times have you seen friends ignore clear red flags as they pursue relationships that will clearly hurt them in the long run? When you see a headline suggesting that a public figure you like has done something bad, the ostrich effect is that voice whispering to just close the article and walk away. It can even steer us away from examining our own shortcomings, when real introspection is what's needed most.

 

It’s up to all of us to pay attention to those tendencies, grit our teeth, and remind ourselves that a little pain now may stave off a lot of pain later.

 

So no, ostriches don’t hide their heads in the sand. And with luck, maybe someday we won’t, either.

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