Beware of the ostrich effect!

22 May, 2017

Turning a blind eye to uncomfortable truths makes you a poor decision-maker

In recent years, we have seen new types of players emerge in the FMCG industry. For many incumbents though, the first reaction was to ignore.  This was in spite of alerts from the sales teams on the ground.  Several large players got into denial model. Teams took comfort in looking at market share data from national research firms, who are not good at picking up share information of smaller firms.

This is not unusual.  When faced with new information that threatens us, we tend to bury our heads in the sand like the ostrich – a phenomenon called ‘information avoidance’.

Drawing on research in economics, psychology and sociology, Carnegie Mellon University professors George Loewenstein, Russell Golman and David Hagmann recently published a study that explored this behaviour and came up with an interesting insight – that we accept or reject knowledge based on the way it makes us feel, rather than logical assessment.

According to standard economic theory, human beings should seek out all the information they can get in order to make the best possible decisions. But it doesn’t quite work that way, does it? Be it the calories in your favourite dessert, the current state of your health, or a market trend that goes contrary to your expectations, we are all experts at tuning out things that make us feel bad or go against our deeply-held beliefs. The ostrich effect can be seen in the world of finance as well: when the stock market is down, investors check their portfolios less often—almost as if ignoring negative developments will make them go away.

In fact, information avoidance can work at three levels. The first is to not obtain the information at all. The second is to be selective in only seeking information that affirms our views. And the third is to interpret it the way we want to.

So, drawing from this, my message this week focuses on information avoidance: how we carefully maintain a selective view of reality, why this can be dangerous, and how to beat this bias.

Take a look at some of the ways in which people reject inconvenient facts. Think about it—which is your modus operandi?

  • Eliminating new information from your life.Do you subscribe to publications that align strictly with your views, or befriend only those colleagues who share your perspectives? If yes, you may be living in an echo chamber, which welcomes opinions similar to yours and keeps out anything different. You may also avoid information that hurts your feelings; for instance, not reading feedback from peers out of fear that they will criticise you.
  • Ignoring new information. If you are unable to physically avoid new information, you might simply choose not to pay any attention when you encounter it—be it via online sources or in-person discussions. Let’s face it, we have all been guilty of tuning out when someone who we disagree with starts talking
  • Reinterpreting information to suit your views. We often judge information to be reliable or suspicious based on our pre-existing beliefs, rather than evidence.
  • Forgetting the facts.Even if you pay attention to new information, your brain might play spoilsport by forgetting things that you wish were not true. This way, you get to stay on in your “happy bubble”.

Occasionally, information avoidance can be a useful strategy. For instance, sportspersons may stay motivated and confident by not paying too much attention to what their competitors are up to, while investors could avoid panic sales by not checking their portfolios during a low period. At other times, side-stepping unpleasant information might make you feel good in the short term, but could impede decision-making and self-improvement in the longer term. So, you may miss out on key industry trends or on feedback that could aid personal growth.

A selective attitude can also be downright harmful in some situations, such as ignoring symptoms and missing the opportunity to spot a potential mishap early, or misjudging the impact of a strategy by dismissing signs of failure as ‘exceptions’. Information avoidance also gets in the way of engaging with those who think differently from you—each person ignores the facts shared by the other, staying firmly in their own camp.

In other words, being open to new information is very important. It gives you a more complete picture, helps you make smarter decisions, enables personal growth, and makes you a better communicator and a more inclusive leader.

This is also important at an organisational level: in today’s constantly-changing world, we need a continual influx of updated knowledge to stay competitive and to thrive.

Here are some key ways in which you can fight your tendency to avoid information that goes against your beliefs or disrupts your sense of well-being:

1. Pursue new sources of information

Instead of reading the same authors, newspapers and magazines you’ve been reading all your life, change things. Subscribe to a publication that is at the other end of your usual preferences, and seek out materials that challenge your theories about the world.

Fresh sources of knowledge can also include people. Widen your circle of people you seek information from. Remember though to look at the right kind of information—reliable, well-researched, and supported by facts. There’s no point wasting your time on conspiracy theories or flimsy arguments.)

2. Remind yourself of inconvenient truths

In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli explains that one of the best ways to combat the brain’s ‘confirmation bias’ (interpreting new information so that it becomes compatible with your convictions) is by taking note of facts that ‘disconfirm’ your beliefs:

“It pays to listen to Charles Darwin: from his youth he set out systematically to fight the confirmation bias. Whenever observations contradicted his theory, he took them very seriously and noted them down immediately. He knew that the brain actively ‘forgets’ disconfirming evidence after a short time.”

Take a leaf out of Darwin’s book: if you come across a new piece of solid information that contradicts your world view, write it down. This way, your mind can’t trick you into forgetting it—you can return to it later and explore it more deeply. Be especially alert towards ‘special cases’ and ‘exceptions’; people often use these words to dismiss facts that get in the way of their cherished theories.

3. Train yourself

Dobelli also recommends actively working towards accepting new information. Write down your beliefs about different aspects of life—business, finance, diet, spirituality, the nature of human beings, and so on. Then, set out to look for evidence that contradicts your convictions. While some of your theories will remain intact or even become stronger, in other areas you might be surprised to find your opinions changing. By challenging your own notions, you can teach yourself to become more open-minded.

4. Embrace feedback

Instead of turning a blind eye to opinions that makes you feel temporarily uncomfortable, seek out feedback proactively and allow it to catalyse personal growth. The blow to your ego is usually softer than anticipated, and you may even be pleasantly surprised. No matter how experienced and competent you are, there’s always room for learning and growth.

Full information can help you make better decisions, unearth fresh opportunities, and explore your fullest potential. Be open to considering unfamiliar, uncomfortable ideas, and to letting go of old beliefs if they have clearly been proven wrong. Yes, it’s difficult to challenge our long-held convictions, but it ultimately makes us stronger and smarter. After all, as writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

I look forward to your thoughts.


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