Cognitive bias: ostrich effect

The second in our series of cognitive biases looks at the ostrich effect. Last time around we looked at the bandwagon effect.

Have you ever tried to avoid bad news even if it might help you in the long run? For example, if you knew that you’d been spending a lot recently, would you put off looking at your bank balance or credit card statement? Of course, looking at it sooner would surely help you plan and budget before it becomes a bigger problem. If you’ve avoided looking at the crucial bit of information that the bank balance or credit card statement holds then you’ve fallen prey to the ostrich effect.

The ostrich effect is where you ignore important (usually negative) information by burying your head in the sand. Burying your head in the sand is clearly a figure of speech that alludes to the idea that ostriches do this when they are scared (not true, by the way).


This term was coined by the behavioural scientists, Galai and Sade, and this work has been subsequently expanded on by Karlsson, Loewenstein and Seppi. The initial work by Galai and Sade focused on attitudes to risky situations but the latter work is where the current definition came about. The work by Karlsson, Loewenstein and Seppi found that the investors look at their portfolios more when the values are rising (they receive positive confirmation that their investments have been good picks) and look at their portfolios less when values are falling (i.e. avoid the negative information). The impact is clearly that they are not able to cut their losses early and by ignoring this information they risk the situation worsening.

We can apply this to the context of students who wish to get top marks in their final exams but put off looking at their marks and feedback on interim tests. The analogy works more accurately if they don’t think they’ve done that well. Falling prey to the ostrich effect in this way means that they avoid getting crucial information on how to improve. The sooner the feedback loop is activated, the earlier they can improve and start compounding their gains.

If there is anxiety built into receiving test scores (as opposed to or in addition to anxiety that occurs when sitting the tests) then achieving behaviour change around this can be difficult. Part of this journey may involve recognising the importance of feedback and seeing it as critical to achieving improvement in an area.

Sometimes that ostrich effect may arise from the modern-day phenomena of information overload. Mobile phones, especially when notifications are activated, can relay information from events far away that may not have a significant impact on one’s life. This has prompted many people to turn away from information sources as they seek to avoid negative information generally. For example, many people avoid the news these days to avoid hearing about divisive politics and COVID19.

Avoiding negative information may be helpful to one’s peace of mind but one may need to consider more curation rather than blanket bans. Some highly important information can be missed otherwise. One way of thinking about this is the idea of signal to noise ratios. It’s a concept from the analogue-era where you might be turning the radio wave dial for your favourite radio station. You might have to cycle through some white noise before you get to the clear signal from your radio station. In a similar way, we can treat information as being either white noise (which we can ignore) or a signal (which we listen to). This may seem obvious so the next step in thinking is to recognise that signals can be positive feedback (“keep doing this”) or negative but constructive feedback (“let’s change this by doing this…”).

Next time, we shall take a look at survivorship bias.

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