Helping audiences overcome the Ostrich Effect

ostrich close up

The Ostrich Effect is a phenomenon when people actively avoid information they consider negative or unpleasant. It’s a conflict between our rational mind and the pain we anticipate with our emotional mind. 

You’ve probably experienced this more frequently than you might think. Ever avoided looking at your bank account balance, not wanting to worry about your current financial situation? Or perhaps you’ve put off thinking about how to save for retirement, because it seems far away and you don’t have a solid plan? Refused to go to a doctor, because it felt easier to deal with a health issue without a diagnosis (easier than actually admitting you’re sick)? You’ve been exposed to the Ostrich Effect.

However, ignoring a problem can lead to incurring higher costs in future. Putting off looking at your bank statements won’t make those bills magically disappear – instead, you may end up paying more in late payment fees and overdraft charges.

When ignoring such problems, we are often aware that it’s perhaps not the best way of doing things. 

So why do we do it? And as communicators, how should we respond when our audiences display this cognitive bias? 

  • Focus on the big picture – Remind people of their long term goals and the gains they could be making by not avoiding the issue. For example, if someone is overweight they may actively avoid any information which confirms this and avoid taking any positive action. Focus such audiences on what can be achieved when they acknowledge their situation – such as, when they commit to eating more healthily, exercising and monitoring their progress – so they can be reminded of the greater health outcomes that they can achieve.
  • Reframing messages – Highlight the benefits of the information you’re sharing. For example, if offering financial advice, reframe your message to highlight the different benefits people can access when they take proactive steps to look at their financial situation, such as less stress and anxiety around money, building savings, and setting up secure investments for the future.
  • Use the Mere Exposure Effect – The phenomenon that anything can become more likeable when we become more familiar with it. Think about how you can introduce certain ideas and messages in bite-sized ways, increasing your audience’s familiarity with an issue before asking them to take action. 
  • Make the process as simple and easy as possible – Always avoid friction. Make the process as simple and easy as possible to help your audience overcome the Ostrich Effect and move towards action.
  • Use data to combat perceived negatives – Use data to remove people’s perceived misconceptions about the outcome of certain things, which will, in turn, reduce the perceived stress (or hassle) of taking action.

Interested in using behavioural science to understand your audiences better? Write to us at contact@lynnpr.co.uk to get started on your behavioural insights journey.

This article was written by Sarah Evans, Account Manager at Lynn PR.