The Ostrich Effect Psychology

Body Dysmorphia
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Have you ever delayed opening a letter with important information – fearing what it might tell you? How many will remember hesitating before opening a letter with their school exam results, a letter from your bank, or perhaps whenever the gas bill comes?

What is the Ostrich Effect?

Psychologists have identified a phenomenon called the “ostrich effect” whereby people prefer not to look at information because of the fear they may receive bad news. This is despite the prospect of making better decisions based on this information. Like the ostrich, which supposedly hides by sticking its head in the sand, people also sometimes tend to “bury their head in the sand”. Intentionally avoiding or rejecting information that would help them.  

Although the idea that ostriches hide their head in the sand is a myth, research shows that, in all sorts of situations, people avoid confronting information. Ostrich-like behaviour is observed in many situations in which people are emotionally invested in information and have some ability to shield themselves from it. 

For example, in the medical context, people may sometimes choose not to book an appointment to see a doctor. This is to avoid receiving potentially threatening information about their medical condition, even if such information could potentially improve the quality of their health and well-being.

Studies into the Ostrich Effect

Studies of the delays in switching to smoking alternatives or in seeking a diagnosis for lung disease and cancer have shown that some symptomatic patients delay visiting their doctor. Especially when their risk of serious illness is higher or when they perceive the symptoms of an illness as more serious.  

As well as avoiding negative information, people may sometimes seek out and relish positive information. One study found that people who recently purchased cars were subsequently more attentive to advertisements for the car model they bought compared to the models they considered buying. Once a decision has been made, people prefer to select and consider information supporting it, rather than risk encountering conflicting information.

Similarly, another study found that smokers made more effort to listen to pro-smoking messages than non-smokers. Whereas non-smokers made more effort to listen to a message affirming the link between smoking and lung cancer than smokers. The evidence indicates that people seek out or avoid information depending on their expectation of its emotional impact.

There is also evidence that stock market traders are less likely to log in to examine how their investments are performing on days when they hear that the market is going down compared to days when the market is going up. Ignorance might be bliss but without information, you are less well equipped to deal with problems.

What causes the Ostrich Effect?

Recent studies in neuroscience show that the same regions of the brain that are activated when experiencing a painful electric shock are also activated in individuals anticipating an impending painful experience. This brain activation increases as the perceived painful event approaches – consistent with a person expecting to receive an electric shock.

While people often look forward to pleasurable events, the opposite can be said for unpleasant events. Just as anticipating pleasure is a pleasure, the anticipation of unpleasant events is unpleasant. Indeed, in this neuroscience study, thinking about the shock was so unpleasant that people were willing to suffer more pain –i.e... a higher voltage shock– to reduce the time they spent dreading the impending shock.

What the research on the ostrich effect shows is that information is not just information; it can also be a source of pleasure and pain in its own right. This is worth thinking about when dealing with matters in your own life. Might you be avoiding exploring an issue for fear of what you might discover?

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