The ostrich effect has a couple of different meanings, depending on the context. In finance, this bias was coined to describe a specific pattern of investor behavior. Some investors were apparently sometimes more willing to make investments if the level of risk associated with it was unreported, compared to similar investments with established risk.3 In psychology, however, the ostrich effect usually refers specifically to people’s reluctance to get feedback on their performance, even though that information would help them to monitor their progress and successfully work towards their goals.2
It might be tempting to write off the ostrich effect as simple laziness. But people often go out of their way to avoid getting this kind of information, even when it’s accessible and easy to use—like investors seeking out investments with unreported risk. A more relatable example might be that of a college student who does not read a professor’s feedback on their paper, even if they want to do better in the course. In fact, generally speaking, people are motivated to assess how they are doing and to strive for self-improvement.2 In spite of our good intentions, there are a few other forces at work within our psyche that can contradict, and overpower, the desire to perform better.
We’re sensitive to losses… so sometimes we just ignore them
Humans are notoriously loss averse: we hate losing things. The pain that we feel when we incur some kind of loss is greater than the pleasure we get from an equivalent gain. To illustrate, imagine somebody offers you a gamble on a coin toss. If the coin comes up heads, you win $150, but if it comes up tails, you lose $100. Would you take the bet?
Obviously, $150 if greater than $100—you stand to gain more than you stand to lose. But for most people, the potential pain of losing $100 is stronger than the joy of winning $150. Research has shown that, in order to be willing to take this gamble, most people need to be offered at least $200. In other words, the potential gain needs to be fully twice as large as the potential loss.4
Our fear of losing can sometimes make us a bit short-sighted. Myopic loss aversion occurs when people lose sight of long-term gains because they’re focused on short-term losses. Investors, for example, often underinvest in assets that carry more risk, because they’re afraid of incurring losses in the short term. However, this can lead them to lose out in the long term, since riskier investments have higher returns.5
Outside the world of finance, myopic loss aversion means losing sight of our big-picture goals because we are preoccupied with the costs of working towards them. The college student striving for an A in their course may genuinely want to improve, but the immediate suffering that comes with reading a professor’s feedback (and being made aware of their shortcomings) looms larger in their mind than the pride that they’ll feel in the future. This dynamic often gives rise to the ostrich effect: People often prefer to be blissfully unaware of information that’s hard to swallow, even if that information might be useful in the long run.
We are biased towards the positive
In general, humans have a strong preference for positive information. This bias runs deep, right down to automatic processes that are mostly outside of our control. We tend to make optimistic predictions and have optimistic expectations; we are more likely to remember positive events than negative ones; and, most important for the ostrich effect, we pay more attention to positive information.6,7 By the same token, our excessive optimism often leads us to downplay negative information and to reject more pessimistic forecasts of how the future might play out.8 This bias is at the heart of countless other cognitive distortions, such as the planning fallacy, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and self-serving biases.
Our preference for the positive is a big reason that people stick their heads in the sand. In one study by Betty Chang and colleagues, where participants were asked to think of situations where they had avoided monitoring their progress and then rank reasons why they hadn’t self-monitored more, one of the most frequent explanations given was that people experienced negative emotions when they thought about working towards their goal.9 People also reported worrying about receiving negative feedback or being told that their progress wasn’t good. The anxiety of facing down a challenge is often enough to deter people from really trying.
We’re trying to protect our ego
Beyond our general dislike of negativity, the ostrich effect is driven in large part by our desire to maintain a certain self-image. We have a deep-seated need to feel good about ourselves, and as a result, we often bend our perceptions of reality just a tad, in order to protect our ego. This is known as a self-enhancement motive.10
Self-enhancement motives can bias our cognition in surprising ways, helping us to zoom in on our successes while minimizing the impact of our failures. One study, for example, found that a majority of people view themselves as above-average drivers. This finding on its own is evidence that people inflate their perceptions of their own abilities since it’s mathematically impossible for everybody to be “above average” at something. But the real kicker is that people continue to insist that they’re better at driving than most even after they’ve caused an accident and been hospitalized.11
Clearly, our drive for self-enhancement can powerfully sway the way we see ourselves, even putting us at odds with reality. This motive also guides our behavior when it comes to seeking feedback or guiding information. Even if we know, on some level, that we’re not doing a particularly good job at something, it can still be psychologically painful to confront this possibility. Because of this, we tend to avoid situations that threaten to confirm the negative beliefs we have about ourselves.
This fact was demonstrated by one study, where students solved anagrams that were either difficult (e.g. TAUCYI—Acuity) or easy (e.g. ZYIDZ—Dizzy). People who were given the trickier anagrams were likely to come out of this task not feeling too hot about themselves, while people given the easy ones were likely to feel pretty good. After finishing with this initial task, participants were told they had to pick some more anagrams to solve from a number of different tests, and were given information about how students of high and low ability tended to perform on each test.
Students who had been given difficult anagrams were less likely to choose tests that were highly diagnostic—meaning, tests that had a big gap between the performances of high- and low-performing students. Instead, they chose tests where the high- and low-achievers performed similarly because a person’s score on this kind of test doesn’t really tell you anything useful about their abilities. By turning down meaningful feedback, participants avoid having their insecurities confirmed.12 The ostrich effect can be born out of this same instinct to preserve our ego.
We’re afraid to change our beliefs
In the same survey mentioned above, the biggest reason that people gave for not monitoring their own progress was that they were afraid that implementing the feedback would require making a change to their beliefs, or to their behavior. This might just signal a lack of willingness to put in the effort to succeed, and that might play a role in some cases—but there’s more to it than that.
The desire for psychological consistency is a major determinant of our behavior. It’s behind one of the most robust effects in psychology, cognitive dissonance, which describes how people maintain their existing beliefs by rejecting new information, rationalizing it away, or adjusting their perceptions.
The core idea, first proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, is that people experience intense psychological discomfort when they hold contradictory cognitions (basically, beliefs or feelings).13 When this tension arises, we feel deeply anxious until we can resolve it. Festinger famously illustrated the power of cognitive dissonance by embedding himself in a doomsday cult that had predicted that the end of the world would occur on a specific day. When the prophesied apocalypse failed to materialize, instead of realizing that they had been wrong, members of the cult doubled down on their beliefs, proselytizing and recruiting new members.14
When we’re committed to an idea, or invested in a specific way of seeing the world, we will go to great lengths to cling to our beliefs. Arguably, the ostrich effect is an offshoot of cognitive dissonance: it enables us to avoid information that disconfirms our established worldview. We’re especially biased to reject information that contradicts our established self-concepts, a drive that is known as the self-verification motive.10