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Unconscious Bias: The Ostrich Effect

by The Ethics Centre
24 November 2016
The ostrich effect describes peoples’ tendency to avoid a difficult situation instead of dealing with it – like an ostrich burying its head in sand when it sees danger. (Ostriches don’t quite do that by the way, but the metaphor works.)
Like most unconscious biases, plenty of smart people succumb to the ostrich effect. Sometimes when faced with complex, awkward or challenging situations, evolutionary biology kicks in and we avoid perceived dangers instead of tackling them head on.  It is a sort of safety mechanism.
The ostrich effect is often associated with risky financial investor behaviour. Dan Galai and Orly Sade, who are credited with coining the term ‘ostrich effect’, suggest both investors and ostriches “treat apparently risky situations by pretending they do not exist”.
This idea is supported by research by Niklas Karlsson, George Loewenstein and Duane Seppi, who found investors are more likely to monitor their portfolios during market growth than in periods of downturn to protect themselves from bad news.
According to organisational psychologist Bill Kahn, our aversion to bad news is basically a product of anxiety. Difficult situations – like failure or conflict – make us anxious. It’s more comfortable to avoid the source of the anxiety than to look it in the eye.
But in today’s modern world, avoiding problems often makes them worse. This is especially so in professional contexts. If you ‘bury your head in the sand’ the problem doesn’t disappear – in reality, it’ll probably escalate. If it does go away, there’s a chance it’ll come back, bigger and be more dangerous to you than before.
READ MORE: Petrina Coventry on ‘good news cultures’ and other symptoms of bad business culture.
Imagine a team member who is behaving unprofessionally, turning up late and not delivering work to an acceptable standard. You might slip into the ostrich effect because you fear calling out the poor performance will put you in an uncomfortable position and create further tensions. In an attempt to save yourself from an awkward conversation, you ignore the behaviour and hope it improves by itself.
But by ‘burying your head in the sand’, your colleague may never realise their work ethic is less than satisfactory and they could very well continue under delivering, causing further issues among the team.
The ostrich effect is at its most powerful when a problem is particularly upsetting or challenging to address, manage or overcome. At times like these it can feel easier to block it from their mind and hope it goes away or is resolved by someone else. But ignoring danger does not make you safer.

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