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The Ostrich Effect: Why We Avoid Negative Feedback

The Ostrich Effect: Why We Avoid Negative Feedback

In general, people prefer positive information to negative information. For example, people tend to look for the positive aspects of a situation before the negative aspects when making decisions.

This is because negative information can be overwhelming, stressful, and depressing. It can also lead to feelings of helplessness, which can make it difficult to take action and make decisions. Positive information, on the other hand, can be encouraging and motivating, making it easier to act.

The ostrich effect, also known as the ostrich problem, is a cognitive bias that describes how people avoid negative information. This includes feedback that could help them monitor their goal progress. Instead of dealing with the situation, we bury our heads in the sand, like ostriches. This avoidance can often make things more problematic, incurring costs we might not have paid if we faced things head-on.

It is generally accepted that human beings prefer positive information to negative information. Our biases run deep, even down to automatic processes that are out of our control. Our brains are wired to focus on the positive information in our environment and ignore the negative. This is because negative information can be more difficult to process, so our brains tend to prioritize positive information. For instance, when faced with an ambiguous situation, people are more likely to focus on the potential positive outcomes rather than the potential negative outcomes.

However, there are also times when focusing on the positive can be detrimental. For example, when people are faced with a difficult task, focusing on the potential positive outcomes can lead them to underestimate the difficulty of the task and set themselves up for disappointment. Additionally, people who focus on the positive may be less likely to take precautions against potential negative outcomes, putting themselves at risk.

The ostrich effect is most noticeable when we make optimistic predictions and have optimistic expectations; we are more likely to remember positive events than negative ones; and we pay more attention to positive information. Additionally, our excessive optimism tends to downplay negative information and to reject more pessimistic forecasts about the future.

This bias is at the heart of countless other cognitive distortions, such as the planning fallacy, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and self-serving biases.


Our preference for the positive is a big reason that people stick their heads in the sand. In one study by Betty Chang and colleagues, where participants were asked to think of situations where they had avoided monitoring their progress and then rank reasons why they hadn’t self-monitored more, one of the most frequent explanations given was that people experienced negative emotions when they thought about working towards their goal. People also reported worrying about receiving negative feedback or being told that their progress wasn’t good. The anxiety of facing down a challenge is often enough to deter people from really trying.

Why does the ostrich effect occur - We’re trying to protect a fragile stage of ego development.

Aside from a dislike of negativity, the ostrich effect is primarily driven by our desire to maintain a certain self-image. Our deep-seated desire to feel good about ourselves often leads us to bend our perceptions of reality a little, in order to protect our ego. This is known as a self-enhancement motive.

Our self-enhancement motives can bias our cognition in surprising ways, helping us to magnify our successes and minimize our failures. In one study, for instance, the majority of respondents rated their driving skills as above average. This finding on its own is evidence that people inflate their perceptions of their own abilities since it’s mathematically impossible for everybody to be “above average” at something. But the real kicker is that people continue to insist that they’re better at driving than most even after causing an accident and been hospitalized.

Clearly, our drive for self-enhancement can powerfully sway the way we see ourselves, even putting us at odds with reality. This motive also guides our behavior when it comes to seeking feedback or guiding information. Even if we know, on some level, that we’re not doing a particularly good job at something, it can still be psychologically painful to confront this possibility. Because of this, we tend to avoid situations that threaten to confirm the negative beliefs we have.

One of the biggest reasons that people gave for not monitoring their own progress was that they were afraid that implementing the feedback would require making a change to their beliefs, or to their behavior.

This might just signal a lack of willingness to put in the effort to succeed, and that might play a role in some cases—but there’s more to it than that.

The desire for psychological consistency is a major determinant of our behavior. It’s behind one of the most robust effects in psychology, cognitive dissonance, which describes how people maintain their existing beliefs by rejecting new information, rationalizing it away, or adjusting their perceptions.

The core idea, first proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, is that people experience intense psychological discomfort when they hold contradictory cognitions (basically, beliefs or feelings).

  • When this tension arises, we feel deeply anxious until we can resolve it. Festinger famously illustrated the power of cognitive dissonance by embedding himself in a doomsday cult that had predicted that the end of the world would occur on a specific day. When the prophesied apocalypse failed to materialize, instead of realizing that they had been wrong, members of the cult doubled down on their beliefs, proselytizing and recruiting new members.


  • When we’re committed to an idea, or invested in a specific way of seeing the world, we will go to great lengths to cling to our beliefs. Arguably, the ostrich effect is an offshoot of cognitive dissonance: it enables us to avoid information that disconfirms our established worldview. We’re especially biased to reject information that contradicts our established self-concepts, a drive that is known as the self-verification motive.


How to avoid it:

Though it can be tempting to run away from constructive criticism, in the long run, we’re almost always better off knowing where we stand and how we can improve. Although it may take a little determination, it’s definitely possible to get around the ostrich effect.

Focus on the big picture:

Whether you’re trying to improve your health or trying to decide how to invest, it’s helpful to try to adopt a long-term mindset. When you feel yourself getting bogged down in temporary setbacks and disappointments, try to remind yourself of your ultimate goal, and focus on the reasons that you decided to do this in the first place. Although the losses might still sting more, this can help to offset the pain of receiving constructive feedback.

Try being mindful:

Mindfulness has been a hot topic over the past few years. Most of the time, people seem to talk about mindfulness meditation as a tool to improve focus and productivity. But at its core, mindfulness is just about paying attention to your experiences as they unfold, nonjudgmentally observing what’s going on inside your mind. Mindfulness is often used as a tool to interrupt harmful patterns that people have fallen into: instead of blindly following an emotional response or instinct, people can simply note that the impulse exists, and then move on from it.

Mindfulness can help combat the ostrich effect by allowing us to distance ourselves from our anxiety about receiving feedback. By taking a second to examine how we’re feeling and what we’re thinking, we might be able to recognize that our resistance to this kind of information isn’t necessarily rational and that it might be holding us back. Many studies have provided empirical evidence that mindfulness practice improves people’s self-knowledge.

Be kind to yourself:

A key element of mindfulness is that it is non-evaluative and nonjudgmental. The point isn’t to catch yourself out or chastise yourself for slacking off. After all, nobody’s perfect, and there’s no reason to feel ashamed of your faults. Not only is it unnecessary to be hard on yourself, it’s also counterproductive, and will probably only add to the negative emotions surrounding your goals and receiving feedback.

What are the core factors leading to the rise of the ostrich effect?

Experiential rationing refers to the process of limiting or restricting oneself from certain experiences or emotions. This can contribute to emotional rigidity and insecurity because it prevents us from fully engaging with our emotions and experiences, and can lead to a narrow and limited perspective on life.

Experiential rationing can influence the formation of expectations and cognitive biases in a number of ways. When we limit ourselves from certain experiences or emotions, we may develop expectations and biases based on our limited experiences, which can lead to a distorted view of reality.

For example, if we have limited experiences with people who hold differing values and motivational factors, we may develop biases and expectations based on stereotypes or limited information. This can lead to a distorted view of others and can prevent us from forming meaningful relationships with people from different backgrounds, or who exhibit differing values or motivational factors.

Experiential rationing can also lead to cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias or availability bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs or expectations, while availability bias refers to the tendency to rely on information that is readily available to us, rather than seeking out new information.

When we ration our experiences, we may be more likely to rely on our existing beliefs and expectations, rather than seeking out new information or challenging our assumptions. This can lead to a cycle of confirmation bias and availability bias, which can reinforce our existing biases and prevent us from learning and growing.

In order to overcome these biases, it is important to challenge our assumptions and seek out new experiences and information. This can involve exposing ourselves to new people, cultures, and ideas, and being open to new perspectives and ways of thinking. By doing so, we can develop a more nuanced and accurate view of the world, and cultivate greater empathy and understanding for others.

Experiential rationing can also contribute to insecurity because it can lead to a lack of confidence and self-esteem. When we limit ourselves from certain experiences or emotions, we may begin to believe that we are not capable or worthy of experiencing them. This can lead to a cycle of self-doubt and self-sabotage, as we may avoid opportunities or situations that could lead to growth and fulfillment.

By challenging our beliefs and attitudes about ourselves and our experiences, we can overcome emotional rigidity and insecurity. This can involve practicing self-compassion and self-care, seeking support from others, and gradually exposing ourselves to new experiences and emotions in a safe and supportive environment. By doing so, we can develop greater emotional flexibility and resilience, and cultivate a more secure sense of self.

Emotional rigidity refers to the tendency to hold onto rigid beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, even when they are no longer serving us. This can lead to insecure patterns of self-sabotage because it prevents us from adapting to new situations and learning from our experiences. When we are emotionally rigid, we may become stuck in negative patterns of thinking and behavior, such as self-criticism, self-doubt, and self-sabotage.

For example, if we have a rigid belief that we are not good enough, we may engage in self-sabotaging behaviors such as procrastination, avoidance, or self-sabotage. This can lead to a cycle of negative thoughts and behaviors that reinforce our belief that we are not good enough, which in turn leads to more self-sabotage.

Developing emotional flexibility and staying open to new experiences are essential for breaking free of these self-sabotage patterns. This can involve challenging our rigid beliefs and attitudes, practicing self-compassion and self-care, and seeking support from others.

By doing so, we can learn to adapt to new situations and develop more secure patterns of behavior that support our well-being and success.