Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s also harmful.
Humans are hardwired to avoid difficult situations. We ignore that weird smell in the fridge so we never have to uncover the mouldy culprit. We stop ourselves from checking our bank accounts (outside of pay day, of course) to ignore the realities of our recent penchant for online shopping. And, on the more problematic end of the scale, we might put off booking that doctor’s appointment so we don’t have to receive any bad news about our health.
I’ve stopped reading news about COVID-19 in an effort to wish away the whole thing (fat chance). As a means to manage my anxieties about the virus, this type of avoidance is probably healthy. But it dips into dangerous territory if I avoid critical information, such as if there was an outbreak in my suburb that I wasn’t aware of.
There’s a name for this last type of information aversion, it’s called the ‘Ostrich Effect’. It’s when people bury their heads in the sand to avoid a risky situation – this is based on a common myth that ostriches do this when they sense danger or risk.
Avoidance is contagious
The current use of ‘Ostrich Effect’ comes from the world of behavioural finance. Researchers Dan Galai and Orly Sade coined it in 2004 when looking into the role avoidance plays in the making of financial decisions.
“Certain individuals, when faced with uncertain investments, prefer investments for which the risk is unreported, over a similar investment (as far as risk and return are concerned) for which the risks are frequently reported,” they write in their research paper.
Separate research, from Columbia Business School, shows that investors are more likely to avoid checking their portfolios when the market is down.
But the term is useful outside of finance. Put simply, the effect describes the fact that we’d rather dwell in the comfort of the unknown than make a decision based on known risks. The psychological comfort we momentarily gain doing this seems worth it at the time, even if it hurts in the long run.
An interesting piece of research from 2014 shows the Ostrich Effect’s impact in a workplace. Researchers Ritesh Banerjee and Giulio 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. They were studying data from 2002-2004 and during this time 54 women had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The usual barriers to getting a mammogram (cost, location, long wait times) were removed as the workplace was offering free, annual mammograms that were conducted on site relatively quickly. The company encouraged uptake of this program by automatically scheduling eligible female employees into these appointments and reminding them of their appointments.
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. This framework couldn’t be 100 per cent accurate, as they were studying the data retrospectively, however they were relatively confident the interactions would remain consistent as only one per cent of staff in 2004 were new hires.
The results they collected show just how powerful the Ostrich Effect can be. The baseline for women who received annual mammograms in the organisation was around 70 per cent, but following a colleague’s diagnosis, they found the women were eight per cent less likely to take the organisation up on its breast screening offer.
In an NPR podcast called The Hidden Brain, Banerjee unpacks the results.
“We find that, on average, when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer… her immediate [female] coworkers 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.
The severity of the diagnosis also impacted women’s decision to screen – those with a colleague who had early-stage breast cancer were more likely to attend annual screenings than those who work with someone diagnosed with a more aggressive breast cancer.
“Seeing a colleague suffer may have frightened these women from obtaining information about their own health,” says Banerjee.
It’s worth noting that the data does not take into account the possibility that women could get mammograms outside of the work environment, but it still acts as a compelling case study in how far we’re willing to go to avoid potentially painful information.
Avoiding receiving important information is just one way the Ostrich Effect is hurting employers. The avoidance of addressing such issues is also harmful.
As HRM has previously reported, when conflict is avoided in the workplace, an organisation’s culture will suffer for it. We spoke with associate professor Vesa Matti Peltokorpi, who has studied the effects of avoidance on employees.
Peltokorpi said when conflict is buried employees become more emotionally exhausted which “can trigger a host of stress-related illnesses as well as absenteeism and high staff turnover”.
There are other potential harms too. Take the breast cancer research example. If staff are so willing to put their own health at risk by avoiding to take preventative measures to protect it, how would they think about the health and safety of other employees?
For example, if sexual harassment is rampant within an organsiation, or an individual is known to behave in a sexually inappropriate manner, it’s not uncommon for people to engage in wilful ignorance – especially if the individual is perceived as valuable to the organisation’s success.
In HRM’s 2019 report into HR’s role in managing sexual harassment cases, we reported on first hand stories of this taking place. In one, an engineering firm had reports that a man who was looking up women’s skirts. He was not even warned for this behaviour, because he was “a rockstar researcher”.
We’re seeing something similar unfold with the recent Dyson Heydon scandal. There are reports that many knew of Heydon’s alleged predatory behaviour, but failed to act upon it. Whether or not this is true is unknown, but the concept of sexual harassment being an open secret is nothing new.
HR professionals play a critical role in creating a culture that supports staff speaking out without fear of repercussions and encouraging leaders to get their heads out of the sand.
When workplace leaders deny the existence of a business-related problem, it can have severe consequences for their careers.
In an article for The Conversation, author and CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts Dr Gleb Tsipursky – author of a book about the risks of believing “comfortable lies over inconvenient truths” – refers to research conducted over four years which suggests denial of reality is a key reason CEOs are fired from their jobs.
The research, conducted by Leadership IQ, collected data from over 1,000 board members from 286 different organisations that had dismissed their CEO. They found that 23 per cent named ‘denying reality’ as a key reason for the CEOs’ dismissal. Other reasons included: mismanaging change (31 per cent), tolerating low performers (27 per cent) and too much talk, not enough action (22 per cent).
“A significant percentage [of board members] said the CEO was far too insulated from frontline realities. Board members also said they would rather [receive] bad news and a plan to fix it, than they would have no news or sugar coated news,” the research says.
It can be hard for leaders to see through this false sense of reality because, as Tsipursky explains, confirmation bias can overpower facts.
“Research on a phenomenon called the ‘backfire effect’ shows we tend to dig in our heels when we are presented with facts that cause us to feel bad about our identity, self-worth, worldview or group belonging,” says Tsipursky. “In some cases, presenting the facts actually backfires, causing people to develop a stronger attachment to incorrect beliefs.”
With all this in mind, it’s worth taking the time to consider the things you’re currently avoiding or denying and get to work on fixing them. I’m going to make a very public pledge to finally clean out my fridge.
Don’t let workplace misconduct go unchecked. This short course from AHRI will give you the tools to manage it.