We avoid looking at bills because we’re worried about seeing how far behind we are on their payments.
We don’t stand on weight scales or look in mirrors if we feel we’ve gained weight.
We turn off the news when the headlines make us upset.
We avoid getting an important medical test done, fearing bad results.
This is the outcome of the conflict between what our rational mind knows to be important and what our emotional mind anticipates will be painful.
There’s a competition, a tension between the two parts of our operating system.
It’s known as the Ostrich Effect.
Originally, the term was a way of describing how investors stuck their heads in the sand during bad market conditions. Now, from a psychological perspective, it’s seen a label for any denial mechanism that we consciously or unconsciously apply in situations.
As everything is in permanent transformation, perpetual change – of which today is the slowest pace we’ll ever experience, the Ostrich Effect is as popular as ever.
It’s a relatively comfortable safeguard against any realities that may be considered painful.
If there were to be the “Ostrich Effects Olympics”, they may play out as follows.
In fourth place, we surely need to address that the Ostrich Effect itself is named after the prevalent myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when faced with a dangerous situation. Contrary to that, ostriches do NOT bury their head in the sand when scared or frightened. In fact, when an ostrich senses danger and cannot run away, it will fall to the ground and remain still, attempting to blend in with the terrain. It should come as no surprise that, firstly, Ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand as they wouldn’t be able to breathe(!) and, secondly, that despite the knowledge that the myth is just not true, we continue to use it as a metaphor.
In third place, finances appear to take the medal…after all, the term Ostrich Effect originated from the financial world of investments. From bill avoidance to “forgetting” to check balances and delaying payment through to denial of the existence of debt, we are world-class ‘Financial Ostriches’ as a race!
In second place, happiness takes silver, where examples are commonplace. Remaining unhappy, even if we are aware of the alternative, is exceptionally popular. We are programmed to believe that we shouldn’t ask for too much, strive for too high greatness, or carry an elevated sense of what is possible.
As I mentioned in my 2013 TEDx talk in Portugal, we are meant to remain mediocre, addicted to the noise so much we are unable or at least unlikely to find and act on our signal.
The human examples of tolerating mediocrity include staying in a job that sucks, continuing with a course that’s actually a curse, or keeping on within a relationship that is draining our soul.
Taking relationships as an example, and marriage specifically; in the insightful report by Tracy Mccole in DivorceMag.com, the three primary reasons people stay in unhappy marriages are:
- For Our Children
- Because of Happy Memories
- Because of Fear
Mccoles’ view, backed-up by Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman, is that fear can be a very useful thing, as it is your brain’s way of protecting you from potential hazards. But when you become immobilized by fear, things get tricky. Of course, inaction is the best friend of fear, and they love to work together to keep you from moving forward.
Fear drives what could be a metaphorically happy Ostrich head, into the proverbial sand.
However, drum roll please, the outright winner of the Ostrich Olympics would most certainly be the way we deal with our health on an overall scale – in other words, life and death.
To some extent, life and death is too obvious a winner, largely as it encompasses “being human” in general. But as I started to look deeper into how we handle the concept of the transformation of life through to its end, I realised that it deserves its place as the thing that we trick ourselves about the most. Sure, ignorance can be bliss, but it’s also supremely harmful.
One piece of research I found fascinating on how the Ostrich Effect can have an impact in a workplace was from the Social Science Research Network (known now as the SSRN) in 2014 entitled “Experiencing Breast Cancer at the Workplace”
The researchers, Banerjee and Zanella studied the data of 7,000 women aged 50-64 who were working at a large, US-based organisation. They wanted to understand how likely it would be for these women to attend annual mammogram checks over the years following a colleague being diagnosed with breast cancer.
The data used over two years showed that 54 women had been diagnosed with breast cancer during that time.
The company encouraged uptake of this program by automatically scheduling eligible female employees into check-up appointments. Plus, the usual barriers to getting a mammogram (cost, location, long wait times) were taken away, as the workplace was offering free mammograms that were conducted on site relatively quickly.
Banerjee and Zanella had access to detailed information about each employee’s location in the workplace and used this to create a framework that outlined the various social interactions that would have likely occurred on a daily basis. As only one per cent of staff were new hires, the pool of people was relatively static.
The results they collected showed just how powerful the Ostrich Effect can be.
Around 70 per cent of women would usually have a mammogram, but following a colleague’s diagnosis, they found the women were almost ten per cent less likely to take the organisation up on its free screening offer.
In an NPR podcast called The Hidden Brain, Banerjee stated:
“We find that, on average, when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer… her immediate female co-workers reduce their propensity to have a breast screening in the year in which the diagnosis takes place. And this impact is persistent for at least two more years after the diagnosis of that woman. When women in the closest proximity to the woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer learn of this information, their willingness to screen falls the most.” he says.
So, it appears that our reluctance to face potentially negative outcomes is greater than our desire to understand our true state.
This is something Bronnie Ware realised. Bronnie is an Australian nurse who spent several years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded the most popular regrets those patients said as they approached death:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This was the most common regret of all. It suggests that many people suffer a distinct sense of unfulfillment when looking back at their lives.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. Bronnie reports this came from every male patient that she nursed. Now, our modern generations are perhaps less biased towards the ‘man’ going to work, so this will probably become more of a comment in females too I suspect.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. What’s interesting about this one is that, according to her reports, many patients developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result of not saying how they really felt.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I’m often amazed at how many of us take our friendships for granted. This isn’t to say that we don’t value them, but that we ‘accidentally’ assume the friend will ‘always be there’ when of course we know for a fact that one of you will go first.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier. This begs the question of what were those people are letting themselves be if it wasn’t happy? It’s striking how people don’t comprehend that happiness can be a choice.
In all of these death bed regrets, there’s evidently been a realisation of a transition, which then generates an assessment of what really matters.
This could be classed as clarity.
What I’m fascinated with is why this doesn’t happen sooner?
Why does clarity tend to come when we’re finally unable to deny the fact that as soon as we’re born, we’re dying?
Bearing in mind we are all aware of life and death, surely the realisation should be automatic?
Shouldn’t it be that we become aware we’re going to die so we naturally gain clarity of what really matters to us?
We avoid thoughts and discussions about life and death for many reasons. They can include:
– It’s seen as a bleak topic surrounded by sadness
– If we speak about it, it will bring it closer to us
– [Insert yours here – there are many to choose from!]
These are the “costs” of gaining clarity, and more often than not, the costs are seen as too expensive.
In other parts of our lives, clarity is not as straightforward. In business, for example, we can make predictions, but we never truly know what’s going to happen until it does. Then we gain clarity if we’re able to consciously assess what’s just happened. Clarity is an outcome rather than something that’s possible in advance.
Sheena Iyengar, Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, states that “The average CEO makes 50% of their decisions in 9 minutes or less.”
From observation, I’d say this is about right. Many decisions are based on pre-set beliefs and preferences – biases – that instruct at least half of all decisions.
Sometimes intuition plays a part, other times expert advice takes a role, but never does the absolute knowledge of the future, trigger a set of questions and answers based on an absolute fact.
Not once. In any business.
Of course, you’ll find it easy to observe business leaders being really certain about outcomes in advance of things happening, and maybe Bertrand Russell got it right when he said: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so sure of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts“.
It should come as no surprise that this has its own named bias: The Dunning–Kruger Effect.
This is a cognitive bias where lesser skilled individuals suffer from a misguided sense of superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate.
I’m sure we can all think of an example of this 🙂
Conversely, in life we know for sure what’s going to happen before it does. It doesn’t require wisdom or intellect. It is agnostic in terms of talent, location and upbringing.
We don’t need to predict what’s going to happen, as the only thing we know is going to happen, is definitely going to happen.
But nonetheless, the gambles we take throughout our lives are oftentimes based on no evidence or from being in denial.
We don’t tell our loved ones they matter, we don’t treat ourselves like someone we care for, we don’t chase our dreams and we avoid discussing ‘difficult’ topics.
Like this one in fact.
What we’re facing is truly the ultimate transformation.
This sounds promising.
Ultimate ‘anything’ is usually an advertising slogan but here it’s undeniable, Our ultimate transformation is a dead cert.
No pun intended.
So how can we reduce the risk of having the types of regrets that Bronnie discovered?
If we could work that out, we could probably use the technique to avoid all other negative influences of the Ostrich Effect right?
Well. It’s really simple and it is in two parts.
1. Seek out all the information you can about how to live well and how to die well. Without fear.
2. Pursue your life well so that you die well. Without regret.
Such an easy two-point technique to state, but statistically very few of us will apply it.
Maybe at the time of filming, here in early 2021 after the incredible 2020 we all had, I wonder whether it is now time to adjust that statistic?
Maybe the outcome of last year is that we have become more aware of the transformational journey we’re on, and what matters to us, personally?
Maybe the penultimate transformation is our attitude to how we live and how we die? That would then provide a ‘North Star’ for us to live in a way that is fulfilling, loving and happy.
A navigation system toward beautiful inner peace.
If those two actions seem too large, perhaps we can zoom in to a few super practical points we can address immediately. When being confronted with a concept or other information, we could ask ourselves:
- What about this information is hard for me to hear?
- How does this information fit with what I think I already know?
- How might ignoring this information affect my decision in the long run?
- How might I include this information in a way that is productive to my thinking?
I believe these questions are all about accountability and, as a fellow human, I find them as equally tough to answer without any form of bias. It’s very difficult for us to be objective, yet these questions require a “setting-aside” of how we’d normally process a question (I.E. from a standpoint of beliefs and preferences); and consider them from a deeply analytical perspective.
Then, maybe, once we have uncovered some clarity, we are faced with a few more questions:
- What am I currently doing (or not doing) that would I regret if I was on my death bed?
- How much time am I working on things that are taking away from enjoying life more fully?
- What feelings do I have that I haven’t expressed?
- Who would I look back and wish I’d spent more (or less) time with?
- Which parts of my life could I adjust, regardless of fear, to enable me to be happier and more fulfilled?
You may recognise these as, essentially, the counter-questions to the death bed regrets from Bronnie Ware’s research. I believe we do not need to wait until we are on our death beds to ask these questions – after all, we cannot predict what will happen to us, our friends, our family, or anyone else on the planet.
We only know one thing for sure. So why not act upon it now to ensure that we live our best possible life. There’s only one of them. It’s an extremely limited edition.
To paraphrase Ayn Rand from her “Ethics in Our Time” paper:
“We are free to evade reality, we are free to unfocus our minds and stumble blindly down any road we please, but not free to avoid the abyss we refuse to see.”
To which I say:
Let’s see it. Let’s grasp it. Let’s live by it. Let’s die by it.
This a transcript from my 13th February 2021 TEDx talk for Royal Holloway. The slide deck that accompanied it can be viewed by clicking here.