Ostrich Effect: A Cognitive Bias That Makes Us Ignore the Facts #GlobalMILWeek
25 October 2023
We like to think of ourselves as rational beings who, when presented with enough information and time for contemplation, can make good choices and judgements. Well, ha-ha, the joke’s on us, because we are not. In this series of short articles about our beautiful and flawed brains – more specifically about cognitive biases – we will look at five common cognitive biases that directly connect to media and information literacies (MILs). The foundation of MILs is knowing oneself and others, and what better time to remind ourselves of our biases than at the brink of elections! So hopefully next time we find ourselves in the middle of a heated online debate about political views or simply as targets of political campaigns, we will know better than to let our brains hijack our judgement through these cognitive shifts.
Today’s know-thyself info nugget relates to the ostrich effect (also referred to as the ostrich problem) where people tend to ignore and avoid useful but uncomfortable or negatively perceived information. The reason for this is the good old cognitive dissonance avoidance, meaning that when there is a discord between two or more pieces of information or emotions, it creates so much discomfort in us that we must give in somewhere in our logic/beliefs/behaviour.
A simple example – imagine that you’ve gone and spent a lot of money. Maybe it was a tourist trip, retail therapy, or a wild Friday night out. Perhaps you can relate to that feeling when you don’t even want to look at your bank account? Ostriching. Alternatively, in terms of health behaviour – diabetics sometimes avoid measuring their blood sugar levels, people struggling with cholesterol levels ignore taking new measurements, and a lump in the breast might not immediately lead someone to a mammologist. Ostrich effect – hiding from the problem. The list goes on and on: denying climate change, racism, sexism, economic recession… In each of these cases, the ostrich effect may lead to a closed echo chamber or a filter bubble, where individuals only expose themselves to information that confirms their existing beliefs and opinions.
Flightless bird as a symbol of flight responses
It is essentially a flight response, an intended or realised escape from the present situation. Stress situations trigger different coping strategies, usually falling into the response framework of fight-flight (or freeze). Fighting or fleeing from a perceived threat or attack are two significant categories of biobehavioural reactions to stressors. Fight reactions and strategies are based on confronting danger, closely related to problem-solving and support-seeking. Flight reactions essentially function as running away from the stressor, an intended or realised escape from the present situation.
Flight response can manifest in our media usage patterns, as we sometimes don’t want to look at the news at all when we are afraid. Media avoidance can kick in, for example, when waiting and fearing for election results; being anxious about what the night has brought on the battlefield; or anticipating the new feats of a new virus. In fact, there is a whole direction in media studies that focuses on media avoidance practices. People may avoid certain genres, often including advertisements; journalism or media in general; specific topics, and so on. When we think about fundamental questions like slow living (The Slow Movement) or JOMO (joy of missing out), we may not, at a glance, want to directly associate it with ostriching. But avoiding a specific topic is definitely part of it. For example, COVID-19 news became an avoidance object for many – can’t be bothered, can’t keep up, don’t want to, constant updates, confusion, etc. ‘I’d rather not follow it at all!’ The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is another topic that can be noticed in media-avoidance practices. Here, one can ask where the line is drawn between justified and understandable self-regulation and taking care of one’s mental health and deliberately cutting oneself off from the essential shared information space of society. Interestingly, some cultural studies have pointed out that ostrich behaviour is more common in individualistic cultures.
Smear campaign against ostriches
By the way, the term ‘ostrich effect’ is complete slander! If I were an ostrich, I would demand justice and fact-based labelling of cognitive biases! Ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand when danger is present. Often, they freeze, lowering their heads and bodies to attract less attention. It is believed that the myth of ostriches burying their heads in the sand arose because ostriches lay their eggs in a hole dug in the ground, not in a nest. And when they are tending to their eggs there, it might look from afar like they are sticking their heads in the sand.
But people persistently continue to claim that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when danger lurks, right? It is ironic that the whole ‘mechanics’ of this cognitive bias are founded on the shift where people are presented with new information that they don’t want to acknowledge, or incorporate into their belief system. So we still stubbornly talk about the ostrich effect.