I initially wanted to put off writing about this fallacy, but I cannot avoid it.
Psychologists use this term to describe the decision to ignore dangerous or negative information by “burying” one’s head in the sand—like an ostrich—and hoping it would disappear.
The ostrich effect is one of the most ominous of fallacies, since it is the belief that things can be kept static by inaction.
But making errors about the inside of our head does not change what is inside it.
Everything is in motion. Change is the law. Stability and consistency are illusions. When we want things to stay the same, we will always end up playing catch-up.
We should go with the flow, but, regrettably, we do not like change.
We fight it.
We are frightened by it.
We want to believe it will not happen to us in the future.
We want to believe in a world at rest, the world of now.
Yet the paradox remains unchanged.
The moment we grasp the “NOW”, that “NOW”* is gone.
Each nanosecond differs from the last.
Time forces us to grow.
Because every time we blink our eyes, the world shifts beneath our feet.
As Heraclitus put it: “You can’t step in the same river twice.”
What to do?
So, while burying our head in sand and ignoring facts—for example, our portfolio values melting like snow in the April sun—might make us feel better for the moment, it is not the ideal position for long term success.
We—too often—do not live our lives with the concept that facts are always changing.
But even more important than learning the facts is learning how to adapt to changing facts. And until we learn to do so, we will constantly be caught flat-footed, or on the-head-just-raised-out-of-the-sand, by new information and the latest developments.
I am not implying that we should act hectically whenever facts change, but rather that we permanently use our rational (and thinking) brain to look for changes, to assess the consequences wrought by those changes, and to stay flexible to take the appropriate action.
In other words, keeping our senses open for changing inputs and, therein, avoiding the ostrich effect.
You are right. But then …
Now allow me to address all you animal behavioural experts who were tempted to comment: “Ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand out of fear.”
Naturally. Because they would not be able to breathe, right?
But they do dig holes in the dirt to use as nests for their eggs and several times a day, they put their heads in those holes to turn them.
So it does really look like they are burying their heads in the sand, though, in truth, they are just taking care of their species’ future.
One could even say, “They are taking care of their own business.”
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” — Aldous Huxley
* The reason why NOW is in capital letters and why I am a big fan of NOW can be found here.