The Ostrich Effect: On the Danger of Burying Your Head in the Sand

The Ostrich Effect

 

No one likes receiving bad news. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it can become problematic if you actively avoid situations where you might receive bad news, just because you don’t want to deal with it.

In the following article, you will learn more about this issue, and see how you can overcome the tendency to avoid bad news, in order to improve your ability to make rational decisions.

 

The ostrich effect

The ostrich effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to avoid situations where they might encounter information that they perceive as negative. The name of this effect is based on the prevalent myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when faced with a dangerous situation.

One study, for example, found that investors tend to “check the value of their portfolios more frequently in rising markets but will ‘put their heads in the sand’ when markets are flat or falling.” This is despite the fact that checking their portfolio could help them make more informed investment decisions in such situations.

This form of thinking is attributed to the concept of selective exposure, which leads people to be selective in how they acquire information, by choosing which new information they want to process, and which information they prefer to avoid. Essentially, people are selective in the information that they choose to deal with, and they sometimes actively avoid dealing with unpleasant news, even if those news contain important information.

As such, ostrich-like behavior is expected “in any situation in which people are emotionally invested in information and have some ability to shield themselves from it”. Based on this, selective avoidance of negative information is predicted to occur in a variety of scenarios:

They can apply, for example, to people’s decisions about when to seek formal medical diagnoses for worrisome health symptoms, to when parents will seek testing for a child who is having trouble in school, to an academic’s decision of when and whether to pursue doubts about the integrity of a student, or to a business executive’s decision to investigate—i.e., perform due diligence—when there are warning signs relating to a prospective deal.

In particular, the ostrich effect predicts that people may delay acquiring information, even when doing so degrades the quality of decision making, if knowing the information forces them to confront and internalize possible disappointments they would mentally prefer to avoid.

The Ostrich Effect: Selective Attention to Information

 

How to overcome the ostrich effect

In order to mitigate the ostrich effect in your thinking, you should ask yourself the following questions when faced with making an important decision:

  • Is there additional information that I can acquire that will help me make a more informed decision?
  • If so, am I pursuing this additional information, or am I avoiding it?
  • If I am avoiding this information, why am I doing so?

If your overall answer is that there is crucial information that you are avoiding because you don’t want to deal with it, despite the fact that it could help you make a more informed decision, then you are likely being influenced by the ostrich effect. There are several ways you can deal with this issue.

The simplest option is to actively push yourself to deal with this information, now that you recognize the fact that you have been avoiding it, and understand why you did that. However, while this is the most straightforward method, it isn’t always effective, because in reality you will often struggle to convince yourself to pursue information that you prefer to avoid.

As such, a good alternative is to set up external mechanisms which will ensure that you deal with the information that you are trying to avoid. For example, in the case of things such as stocks or bills, you can set up automatically scheduled emails, that provides you with the necessary information once a week, or once a month.

In addition, an external mechanism can also be a person who cares about you, and who can hold you accountable and make sure that you deal with the information that you need to deal with. This can be helpful in scenarios where automatic reminders aren’t as effective, such as when facing an important medical decision.

Essentially, you can choose whichever mechanism you want, as long as it ensures that you deal with the information that you need to deal with. A good mechanism is one that will reliably present you with the information that you need, without giving you an easy way to avoid it.

Note: research shows that the ostrich effect might not always play a role in your thinking. However, this isn’t crucial, since you always need to be prepared for the possibility that it will.

 

Deciding when it’s acceptable to intentionally avoid information

Keep in mind that sometimes it can be reasonable to avoid negative information, as long as doing so leads to better decision making, or offers some other benefit. For example, if you are committed to holding a certain stock in the long run and know that checking its performance constantly will make it more difficult for you to not sell it too early, then limiting your exposure to information about the stock might help you remain detached, and maintain your position.

Similarly, you might choose to avoid processing new negative information, in situations where you know it won’t influence your decision making. This could occur, for example, if you know that there is nothing more you can do in a certain area, and receiving more information on it will only make you feel worse.

Overall, the important thing is that if you do choose to selectively avoid information, then you should make that choice in a conscious, rational manner. That is, if you do decide to avoid dealing with certain pieces of negative information, then you should do so because you believe that doing this will benefit you, rather than because you’re afraid of having to deal with news that you don’t want to hear.

 

The meerkat effect

The meerkat effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to become hypervigilant during periods of instability. In the financial context, this means that people tend to monitor their portfolio more frequently when markets are unstable, regardless of whether the fluctuations have an overall negative or positive trend.

This cognitive bias is referred to as the meerkat effect since “apocryphal meerkats stick their heads up to look around whenever something happens”.

The meerkat effect is mentioned here in relation to the ostrich effect, due to the similar way in which these two biases influence people’s information-acquisition strategy. However, there is a notable difference between the two biases, since the meerkat effect leads to an increased interest in acquiring new information, while the ostrich effect does the opposite, and leads to avoidance of new information.

Nevertheless, the meerkat effect can coexist with the ostrich effect, and people are sometimes influenced by both biases simultaneously. As such, even when market fluctuations lead people to check their portfolio more frequently, they tend to check it more often when their stocks have an overall positive return, compared to when their stocks have an overall negative return.

This suggests that even when lack of certainty causes people to seek out new information in order to make better-informed decisions, due to the influence of the meerkat effect, those people will still be less likely to acquire new information when they fear that it might be negative, due to the influence of the ostrich effect. As such, you should be wary when faced with an unstable situation, where you might want to avoid acquiring new negative information, even if you feel that you’re acquiring more information than you would normally.

Specifically, you shouldn’t let the fact that you’re pursuing more information than normal make you ignore the fact that you’re still avoiding information which could be beneficial. Essentially, you should always use the questions we saw earlier, and ask yourself whether there is additional information you could find that will help you make more informed decisions.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The ostrich effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to avoid situations where they might encounter information that they perceive as negative.
  • The name of this effect comes from the myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when faced with a dangerous situation.
  • This form of thinking is attributed to the concept of selective exposure, which is when people selectively choose which new information they want to process, and which information they prefer to avoid. In the case of the ostrich effect, this avoidance occurs because people feel emotionally invested in the situation, and want to shield themselves from having to deal with bad news.
  • To counter the ostrich effect, you should ask yourself whether there is additional information you can acquire that could help improve your decision-making process, and whether you’re choosing to avoid this information just because you don’t want to hear it. In addition, you can set up external mechanisms, such as automated emails or a person you trust, which can help hold you accountable and ensure that you face information that you might otherwise choose to avoid.
  • Keep in mind that sometimes it can be a valid decision to avoid negative information, when doing so leads to better decision making. The important thing is to make the decision to do this in a conscious and rational manner, based on the fact that you believe that avoiding the new information will be more beneficial to you than acquiring it.

 


Good Enough is Good Enough: Letting Go of Perfectionism in Order to Get Things Done

Good Enough is Good Enough

 

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Voltaire

We often spend too much time working on things long after we should have stopped, in a misguided attempt to make them perfect. This habit is problematic, because it can cause you to waste time and feel frustrated, without helping improve the quality of your work.

In the following article, you will learn more about the problem with perfectionism, and see how you can deal with it by implementing the concept of good enough, in order to boost your productivity.

 

The problem with perfectionism

Perfectionism, which is generally characterized as the trait of striving for flawlessness in your work, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Specifically, when it manifests in a positive way, perfectionism ensures that we set high standards for ourselves, and provides us with the motivation that pushes us to work hard.

The problem with perfectionism occurs when it gets out of hand and manifests in an unhealthy, neurotic way, which causes us to pursue unattainable goals, or to waste time focusing on unimportant details. This form of negative perfectionism causes us to be highly inefficient in our work, and is also correlated with an increase in various mental-health problems, such as stress, anxiety, and depression.

Furthermore, negative perfectionism can also serve as an excuse that we give ourselves in order to delay the moment when we have to take action and risk failure. For example, if we’re afraid to make our work public because we worry that it will be accepted badly, we might keep developing our work indefinitely, under the false guise of trying to perfect it.

As such, the most important distinction to remember with regards to perfectionism is that healthy (adaptive) perfectionism is about striving for perfection, while unhealthy (maladaptive) perfectionism is about having a negative reaction to imperfection.

Because of this, those who benefit from having perfectionist tendencies are those who are able to use their perfectionism as motivation to try and achieve good results in their work, while simultaneously accepting the fact that the end result will have some imperfections. This idea is epitomized in the concept of good enough, as we will see in the following section.

 

The concept of good enough

The idea of getting to a level where your work is good enough does not mean that you should do work that is inherently subpar. Rather, doing work that is good enough means rationally deciding what level your work should be at in order to achieve the best outcome for you, and then striving to reach that level.

As such, the first step to using this concept is to clearly identify what good enough means to you. This will vary in different scenarios, and in some cases your standard for good enough might end up being quite high.

For example, when preparing an academic paper for publication, the end result will have to be of high quality in order for it to get accepted in a high-ranked journal. Since your first draft usually won’t be good enough for this, you will likely have to revise the paper several times in order to get it to the necessary level.

This is where the concept of good enough comes into play. While revising the paper is certainly necessary, eventually you’re going to hit the point of diminishing returns, where going over the paper no longer leads to any significant improvements in quality. This might occur on your 4th, 6th, or even 10th draft, but in the end you will reach the point where additional revisions result in only minor, inconsequential changes, that do not increase the chance of publication.

In this context, the key to using the concept of good enough is to identify at what point the paper no longer benefits on a significant level from additional work, and to then actually send it out when you get to that point.

If you know that you struggle with letting go of a project once you’re engaged in it, you can decide on a set ‘launch’ point in advance, before starting. In the case of writing a research paper, for example, this can include things such as:

  • Deciding how much time you’re willing to dedicate to writing the paper, in terms of total hours.
  • Deciding on a deadline by which you have to submit the paper.
  • Deciding how many drafts you’ll go over before you settle on a final version.
  • Deciding that after the second draft is done, you’ll send it to a colleague for external feedback, and then reassess the situation based on that feedback.

 

Rule of thumb for deciding on your good enough point

The 80/20 rule is often a helpful guideline when determining what good enough means. Specifically, this rule states that roughly 80% of the output comes from 20% of the work. This means that the more work you put into something past a certain point, the lower the return you will get on your investment of time and effort.

You should take this rule into account, and decide at what point your efficiency, in terms of cost/benefit ratio, becomes low enough that additional work doesn’t lead to enough benefits in order to be worth it.

 

Accounting for Parkinson’s law

Another thing that you should keep in mind with regards to your good enough point is Parkinson’s law, which denotes that “work expands to fill the time which is available for its completion”. Essentially, what Parkinson’s law means is that the more time you assign to a certain task, the longer you will take to complete it, even if you could have gotten it done in a shorter period of time.

Understanding the concept of good enough can help you avoid this issue in some cases. Specifically, by deciding on a clear good enough point from the start, you can decide how much time you need to dedicate to the task, rather than how much time you can dedicate to the task, which will help you set realistic time constraints, and avoid wasting time.

Furthermore, by identifying a clear good enogh point, and stopping as soon as you get to it, you will be able to save time when you end up finishing a project earlier than expected. In such cases, instead of dragging on the process submitting your work just because you have extra time available, you should stop once you realize that you’ve reached your target good enough point.

 

Final words on the concept of good enough

Most importantly, you should remember that your time is precious, and that there is also always a cost to doing extra work. When this cost isn’t worth it, that’s the point where you should stop working, and move on to the next thing that you need to do.

Overall, the key to working efficiently by letting go of perfectionism lies is in learning to identify what your good enough point is, and getting yourself to stop once you get there. The standard for what good enough means for you can be as low or as high as necessary; the important thing is to set this standard using a rational thought process.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Perfectionism, which is characterized as the trait of striving for flawlessness in your work, can influence us in a positive way when it pushes us to set high standards for ourselves.
  • However, perfectionism can also influence us negatively, when it manifests in a neurotic way, or when we use it as an excuse to avoid releasing our work. This form of negative perfectionism causes us to be inefficient, and is correlated with an increase in mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • The most important distinction to remember with regards to perfectionism is that healthy perfectionism is about striving for perfection, while unhealthy perfectionism is about having a negative reaction to imperfection. Because of this, those who benefit from having perfectionist tendencies are those who use their perfectionism as motivation to try and achieve good results in their work, while simultaneously accepting the fact that the end result will have some imperfections.
  • To avoid the issues which are associated with negative perfectionism, you should learn to identify your good enough point; this is the level at which whatever thing you are working on is ready to launch, and will no longer benefit on a significant level from additional work.
  • You can choose to set your good enough point as low or as high as you want, as long as you do so using a rational thought process. A good rule of thumb is to find the point where additional work does not lead to a meaningful improvement in the final product, or when your efficiency, in terms of cost/benefit ratio between how much effort you expend to how much you benefit from that effort, becomes low enough that additional work doesn’t lead to enough benefits for it to be worth it.

 


Parkinson’s Law: Get More Things Done by Giving Yourself Less Time to Do Them

Parkinsons Law

 

Parkinson’s law is the adage that work expands to fill the time which is available for its completion. In the following article, you will learn more about this concept, and about how understanding it can help you boost your productivity.

 

Explanation of Parkinson’s law

“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”

Parkinson’s Law, in The Economist

Simply put, Parkinson’s law is the idea that the more time we decide to dedicate to a certain task, the longer it will us take to complete it, even if we could have gotten the task done just as well in a shorter period of time.

This phenomenon has been observed in a number of scientific studies, which show that when people are given extra time to complete a task, they will generally take advantage of that time, even if they don’t really need, and it doesn’t lead to better performance on the task.

Furthermore, this effect sometimes extends to subsequent attempts to perform the same task. That is, if someone is given extra time to perform a task the first time around, they will generally take longer than necessary to complete the task again in the future, even if you remove the explicit instructions giving them extra time.

Overall, what this research shows is that when people are given a task to perform, they often think in terms of “how much time do I have to complete it?”, without also considering “how much time do I need to complete it?”. This mindset causes people to waste time needlessly, by working in an inefficient manner.

 

Corollaries of Parkinson’s law

The underlying principle behind Parkinson’s law extends to other areas beyond personal productivity.

For example, researchers examining public management found that “contracting expands to consume the administrative resources available for its generation and management”. This means that just as people tend to take up as much time as they have available when they need to complete a task, contractors tend to use all the available resources that they can, regardless of whether they need them or not.

Similarly, other studies showed that the “the growth of bureaucratic or administrative bodies usually goes hand in hand with a drastic decrease of its overall efficiency”. Essentially, the more workers are allocated to perform certain tasks, the less efficient each of them becomes. This mirrors the previously discussed decrease in efficiency that accompanies an increase in the time allotted to a certain task.

Overall, we can summarize the most basic version of Parkinson’s law by saying that once resources are allocated to a specific task, we tend to use them even in cases where they are unnecessary.

Furthermore, when there are no strict constraints on the amount of resources that are being consumed (such as time and money), the general tendency is to try and increase the amount of resources that are allocated to each task, regardless of whether more resources are needed or not.

Taken together, these tendencies cause most people to work in an inefficient and wasteful way. By learning to account for Parkinson’s law, using the methods which we will see in the next section, you can learn to work more efficiently, and boost your productivity.

 

How understanding Parkinson’s Law can help you become more productive

To account for Parkinson’s law in your work, you need to start each task by identifying its scope, and trying to determine how much time it will realistically take to complete it.

That is, don’t ask yourself how much time you have to complete a task. Instead, ask yourself how much time it should realistically take you to complete that task, and do your best to complete your work within that timeframe.

You can accomplish this by using artificial time constraints, which research shows can lead to higher outputs. Each constraint will apply to a specific task. For short-term tasks, for example, you might use a timer with a set amount of minutes, while for long-term tasks you might choose to work with a date-based deadline.

If you end up seeing that more time is necessary, that’s fine. However, try to complete the task before the allotted time runs out, if it’s possible to do so without compromising the quality of your work.

Doing this ensures that you don’t fall into the trap of using extra time that you have when you don’t really need it. Of course, if you end up seeing that you need less time than you originally thought, try and finish the task early, rather than let it drag on.

 

Other applications of Parkinson’s law

While the examples which we saw so far focused on Parkinson’s law primarily under the context of how much time you should spend on tasks, the same considerations also apply to other resources, such as money and effort. This means that you shouldn’t just pour resources into a certain task just because they’re available, if there is no compelling reason to use them.

To avoid this pitfall, you should first ask yourself what beneficial outcomes you can expect to gain in return for the resources that you intend to invest. You want to make sure that the ratio between outcomes-gained to resources-used is good enough that it’s worth it for you to use these resources.

Similarly to when considering how much time you should spend on a certain task, the goal here is to ask yourself “what resources do I need in order to complete this task”, rather than just taking advantage of all the resources that you have, even when they’re not necessary.

In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that accounting for Parkinson’s law can also help you collaborate more effectively with other people. Specifically, you can use the techniques that you saw here in order to set goals and constraints in collaborative work, in a way that ensures that your workflow is as efficient as possible.

 

Apply with common sense

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”

Stock-Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law

The key thing to remember when accounting for Parkinson’s law is that when choosing how much time or others resources to dedicate to a task, you should choose an amount which ensures that you don’t waste anything needlessly, but which simultaneously ensures that you don’t compromise the quality of your work.

That is, when accounting for Parkinson’s law, you should focus on setting realistic time/resource constraints, and making sure that you abide by them whenever possible. This is as opposed to doing things such as setting minimal time constraints, which will guarantee that you don’t spend too much time on each task, but which can result in subpar work.

For example, if you know that a certain task takes around 10 minutes to complete, you won’t be able to cram it into 2 minutes and still do a good job, and you shouldn’t try to either. Rather, your goal here should be to identify the fact that it takes about 10 minutes to complete the task, and set that as a time limit, to prevent yourself from wasting 30 minutes on it just because you can.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
  • This means that in general, the more time we decide to allocate to a certain task, the longer it will us take to complete it, even if that extra time is unnecessary.
  • This principle extends to other areas beyond personal time management. Essentially, research shows that once resources are allocated to a specific task, we tend to use them regardless of whether they are necessary or not.
  • To account for Parkinson’s law, set up realistic time/resource constraints before you start working on a task, and try to complete your work within that limit. It’s fine to adjust as you go along; this means that you can add extra time if necessary, or finish the task early if you see that it’s possible to do so.
  • Remember that it’s not just about trying to get the work done in the shortest amount of time possible. Rather, the goal of accounting for Parkinson’s law is to set up a frame which allows you to work efficiently and avoid wasting time, without compromising the overall quality of your work.