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Ostrich effect

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The ostrich effect, also known as the ostrich problem,[1] was originally coined by Galai & Sade (2003).[2] The name comes from the common (but false) legend that ostriches bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger. This effect is a cognitive bias where people tend to “bury their head in the sand” and avoid potentially negative but useful information, such as feedback on progress, to avoid psychological discomfort.[1]

Neuroscientific evidence[edit]

There is neuroscientific evidence of the ostrich effect. Sharot et al. (2012) investigated the differences in positive and negative information when updating existing beliefs. Consistent with the ostrich effect, participants presented with negative information were more likely to avoid updating their beliefs. Moreover, they found that the part of the brain responsible for this cognitive bias was the left IFG - by disrupting this part of the brain with TMS, participants were more likely to accept the negative information provided.[3]

Researched contexts & applications[edit]


An everyday example of the ostrich effect in a financial context is people avoiding checking their bank account balance after spending a lot of money.[4] The studies below explore the ostrich effect through investors in financial markets.

Galai & Sade (2003) studied investors' decision-making in Israel’s capital market. They found that investors prefer financial investments where the risk is unreported over those with a similar risk-return profile but with frequently reported risks, saying that investors are willing to pay a premium for "the bliss of ignorance".[2]

Later, Karlsson et al. (2005) studied investors’ decision-making in Swedish and US markets. They determined that investors from both countries looked up their portfolios more when the market index was increasing (positive information) and less when the index was decreasing (negative information).[5]


There are known negative implications of the ostrich effect in healthcare. For example, people with diabetes avoid monitoring their blood sugar levels.[6]

Banerjee & Zanella highlighted the ostrich effect in avoiding preventive screening, studying women working at a company to understand how a woman’s propensity to get annual mammograms changes after a co-worker is diagnosed with breast cancer. The company had on-site mammograms and removed all barriers to getting them, such as cost and long queues. 70% of eligible women took up the company’s offer of an annual mammogram. However, surprisingly, in the presence of a co-worker diagnosed with breast cancer, women “spatially closer to her in the workplace” are 8% less likely to get a screening.[7] Highlighting that in the presence of potentially negative information, people tend to avoid the chance to receive it.

Climate and energy[edit]

Research has found that when people feel uninformed about a pressing matter, they may exhibit the ostrich effect.[8] The ostrich effect may explain why people sometimes avoid tackling climate change or energy depletion.

Shepherd & Kay (2012) presented participants with a passage. One group read that the US would have oil for 240 more years (positive information), while the other read that supplies would diminish in 40 years (negative information). Afterwards, participants completed a questionnaire to gauge their interest in learning about energy depletion. Those who read that energy depletion was an urgent problem and that oil would run out in 40 years were more likely to avoid learning about the issue.[8]

Theories on causes[edit]

Cognitive dissonance[edit]

Cognitive dissonance is a state of psychological discomfort that arises when an individual holds two or more conflicting beliefs.[9] Chang et al. (2017) found that when participants ranked reasons on why they did not monitor progress, the main reason was that “information on goal progress would demand a change in beliefs”.[10] This statement shows that when confronted with information that contradicts their beliefs, individuals may experience cognitive dissonance and avoid seeking it to reduce discomfort. This avoidance is the ostrich effect. The opposite, seeking information consistent with your beliefs, is a cognitive bias termed confirmation bias.[11]


Chang et al. (2017) also found that some participants exhibited the ostrich effect because they did not trust the information provided.[10] Lack of trust is especially true for negative information; Ilgen et al. (1979) found that people are more likely to trust positive feedback than negative feedback.[12] Additionally, DeBono & Harnish (1988) found that the information's trustability depends on the perceived expertise of the information provider. The higher the perceived expertise, the more likely people trust it.[13]

Loss aversion[edit]

Loss aversion is the tendency for people to feel the pain of losses more strongly than the pleasure of equivalent gains.[14] Panidi (2015) looked at the link between loss aversion and the ostrich effect - loss aversion was measured through lottery choices, and the ostrich effect was measured through preventive medical testing. The study found that higher loss aversion decreases the chance of the decision to do a preventive medical test.[15] Demonstrating that the higher the loss aversion in an individual, the more likely they are to display the ostrich effect by avoiding information on diagnosis.



Initial findings[edit]

Gherzi et al. (2014) studied 617 investors from Barclays Wealth & Management UK. They found no perceivable attempt by investors to ignore or avoid negative information. Instead, they saw that "investors increase their portfolio monitoring following both positive and daily negative market returns, behaving more like hyper-vigilant meerkats than head-in-the-sand ostriches". They dubbed this phenomenon the "meerkat effect".[16]

Follow-up research[edit]

Sicherman et al. (2016) showed that the sample and demographic moderate the extent that investors exhibited the ostrich effect. In a sample of 100,000, Sicherman et al. (2016) found that 79% of investors showed the ostrich effect while 21% had “anti-ostrich behaviour”, such as the meerkat effect.

The researchers argued that Gherzi et al. (2014) sample size of 617 investors was too small, one potential reason that most investors exhibited the meerkat effect rather than the ostrich effect. Sicherman et al. (2016) also showed that the ostrich effect appeared more in “men, older investors and wealthier investors”. [16][17]

Future research: Culture[edit]

Another moderator for the ostrich effect that has yet to be specifically studied but has been theorised is cultural differences.[16][17] Culture may impact the ostrich effect as the underlying causes of the ostrich effect are all influenced by culture. Hoshino-Browne et al. (2005) showed that cognitive dissonance is resolved in different manners in collectivistic cultures compared to individualistic cultures.[18] Furthermore, Wang et al. (2016) shows that loss aversion is higher in individualistic cultures,[19] and Rose & Kitayama (1991) found that collectivistic cultures tend to trust negative feedback and reject positive ones.[20] Individualism appears more in western culture,[21] hinting at the ostrich effect being higher in western cultures. The studies on the ostrich effect are predominantly conducted on western cultures; therefore, future studies must test for potential cultural differences in the ostrich effect.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Webb, Thomas L.; Chang, Betty P. I.; Benn, Yael (2013). "'The Ostrich Problem': Motivated Avoidance or Rejection of Information About Goal Progress". Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 7 (11): 794–807. doi:10.1111/spc3.12071. ISSN 1751-9004.
  2. ^ a b Galai, Dan; Sade, Orly (2003). "The 'Ostrich Effect' and the Relationship between the Liquidity and the Yields of Financial Assets". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.431180. ISSN 1556-5068. S2CID 154904068.
  3. ^ Sharot, Tali; Kanai, Ryota; Marston, David; Korn, Christoph W.; Rees, Geraint; Dolan, Raymond J. (2012-10-16). "Selectively altering belief formation in the human brain". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (42): 17058–17062. doi:10.1073/pnas.1205828109. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 3479523. PMID 23011798.
  4. ^ Olafsson, Arna; Pagel, Michaela (2017). "The Ostrich in Us: Selective Attention to Financial Accounts, Income, Spending, and Liquidity" (PDF). National Bureau of Economic Research. Cambridge, MA: w23945. doi:10.3386/w23945. S2CID 158385626.
  5. ^ Karlsson, Niklas; Seppi, Duane J.; Loewenstein, George F. (2005). "The 'Ostrich Effect': Selective Attention to Information about Investments". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.772125. ISSN 1556-5068. S2CID 154954897.
  6. ^ Peel, Elizabeth; Douglas, Margaret; Lawton, Julia (2007-09-06). "Self monitoring of blood glucose in type 2 diabetes: longitudinal qualitative study of patients' perspectives". BMJ. 335 (7618): 493. doi:10.1136/bmj.39302.444572.DE. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 1971180. PMID 17761996.
  7. ^ Zanella, Giulio; Banerjee, Ritesh (2014-03-14). "Experiencing Breast Cancer at the Workplace". Rochester, NY. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2424782. hdl:10419/159777. S2CID 153923349. SSRN 2424782. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  8. ^ a b Shepherd, Steven; Kay, Aaron C. (2012). "On the perpetuation of ignorance: system dependence, system justification, and the motivated avoidance of sociopolitical information". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 102 (2): 264–280. doi:10.1037/a0026272. hdl:10012/6813. ISSN 1939-1315. PMID 22059846.
  9. ^ Aronson, Elliot (1969-01-01), Berkowitz, Leonard (ed.), "The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: A Current Perspective11This article and all the original work reported in it were supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.", Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 4, Academic Press, pp. 1–34, doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(08)60075-1, retrieved 2023-03-31
  10. ^ a b Chang, Betty P. I.; Webb, Thomas L.; Benn, Yael (2017-02-08). "Why Do People Act Like the Proverbial Ostrich? Investigating the Reasons That People Provide for Not Monitoring Their Goal Progress". Frontiers in Psychology. 8: 152. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00152. ISSN 1664-1078. PMC 5297323. PMID 28228740.
  11. ^ Nickerson, Raymond S. (1998). "Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises". Review of General Psychology. 2 (2): 175–220. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.2.2.175. ISSN 1089-2680. S2CID 8508954.
  12. ^ Ilgen, Daniel R.; Fisher, Cynthia D.; Taylor, M. Susan (1979). "Consequences of individual feedback on behavior in organizations". Journal of Applied Psychology. 64 (4): 349–371. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.64.4.349. ISSN 1939-1854.
  13. ^ DeBono, Kenneth G.; Harnish, Richard J. (1988). "Source expertise, source attractiveness, and the processing of persuasive information: A functional approach". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 55 (4): 541–546. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.55.4.541. ISSN 1939-1315.
  14. ^ Tversky, Amos; Kahneman, Daniel (1992-10-01). "Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty". Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. 5 (4): 297–323. doi:10.1007/BF00122574. ISSN 1573-0476. S2CID 8456150.
  15. ^ Panidi, Ksenia (2015-02-01). "Ostrich Effect in Health Care Decisions: Theory and Empirical Evidence". Rochester, NY. SSRN 2932181. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. ^ a b c Gherzi, Svetlana; Egan, Daniel; Stewart, Neil; Haisley, Emily; Ayton, Peter (2014-11-01). "The meerkat effect: Personality and market returns affect investors' portfolio monitoring behaviour". Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. Empirical Behavioral Finance. 107: 512–526. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2014.07.013. ISSN 0167-2681.
  17. ^ a b Sicherman, Nachum; Loewenstein, George; Seppi, Duane J.; Utkus, Stephen P. (2016). "Financial Attention". Review of Financial Studies. 29 (4): 863–897. doi:10.1093/rfs/hhv073. ISSN 0893-9454.
  18. ^ Hoshino-Browne, Etsuko; Zanna, Adam S.; Spencer, Steven J.; Zanna, Mark P.; Kitayama, Shinobu; Lackenbauer, Sandra (2005). "On the cultural guises of cognitive dissonance: The case of Easterners and Westerners". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 89 (3): 294–310. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.89.3.294. ISSN 1939-1315. PMID 16248715.
  19. ^ Wang, Mei; Rieger, Marc Oliver; Hens, Thorsten (2017). "The Impact of Culture on Loss Aversion: Loss Aversion". Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. 30 (2): 270–281. doi:10.1002/bdm.1941. S2CID 147620509.
  20. ^ Markus, Hazel R.; Kitayama, Shinobu (1991). "Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation". Psychological Review. 98 (2): 224–253. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.98.2.224. ISSN 1939-1471. S2CID 13606371.
  21. ^ Hofstede, Geert (2011-12-01). "Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context". Online Readings in Psychology and Culture. 2 (1). doi:10.9707/2307-0919.1014. ISSN 2307-0919. S2CID 7313352.