Let’s say it’s election time, and you already know how you’re going to vote. As the campaigning starts, you make an effort to listen to your party’s messaging while deliberately keeping away from the other team’s blustering. This is called active information avoidance, or the “ostrich effect”, and it could be holding you back.
As StepChange launches this year’s Debt Awareness Week, find out how you can take back control by learning about this unusual behavioural quirk.
What is information avoidance?
The unconscious habit of “active information avoidance” used to be more unusual than it is now. This is because we’re deep into the information age, where we’re bombarded by data, news, fake news, opinions, information and noise all day long. If you don’t make an effort to filter some of it out, you’ll quickly go nuts.
But as we get better and better at this, a lot of essential information can slip through the cracks. Debt Awareness Week reminds us how this kind of thing can really affect our finances. For example, when we deliberately choose not to check our bank account because we suspect it’s empty. No news is better than bad news, right?
It’s not just ordinary people who do this, you’ll be glad to hear. Studies have shown that high powered investors are especially guilty, and actively avoid checking their portfolios of big money stocks and shares when they suspect the market prices have fallen. This leads to things like, you know, major recessions and global banking crises!
The ostrich effect
It happens physically as well as mentally, you see. Avoiding going back to the doctors for test results is an example we can probably all relate to. Often we prefer not to know what those tests came back with, rather than risk the obvious benefits of acquiring information that we know exists and costs nothing to obtain out of concerns that we might not like what we discover.
This habit has become known as the “ostrich effect” and we’re becoming so good at it as a society that we’re even training ourselves to forget information upon command rather than have our beliefs tested.
Ananda Ganguly and Joshua Tasoff ran a fascinating experiment that really highlights the potential consequences of an information avoidance habit. Participants in the experiment could pay to avoid taking a health test, and 12% of those involved took this avoidance option. And they were three times more likely to avoid the test – at their own financial (and potential health!) cost - the worse the health implications were.
Are you an ostrich?
So even though we do it to protect our sanity, the consequences are typically negative when we deprive ourselves of important, if unpleasant, information. Becoming mindful of this habit is the first step in correcting it, and can lead to major positive benefits like taking conscious control of our finances and our lives.
To help us all figure out how susceptible we are to active information avoidance, and hopefully shed some light on our financial habits during StepChange’s excellent Debt Awareness Week campaign, we’ve posed a few simple questions over on Facebook and Twitter. Remember to answer honestly and next time it happens we might just stop ourselves and embrace important information rather than dodge it at our own expense.
And remember to visit StepChange to take their Debt Workout challenge, and this time next year you might not be so keen to avoid checking your bank account.