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How Can the Ostrich Effect Negatively Impact Workplace Safety?

September 7, 2016

ostrich-effect.jpgThis is part 3 of our series on how cognitive biases affect workplace safety. Click here to read Part 1, click here for Part 2, and here is Part 4.

A few weeks ago I had two problems that occurred almost simultaneously at my home:

Problem #1: Occasionally my wife and I would hear some strange scratching sounds right above our bedroom at night.

Problem #2: The air handler component of my A/C system was leaking water.

How did I prioritize and act on these problems? I wish I could say that my logical system kicked in for these decisions, but as readers of this blog series should know it was the intuitive system driving my behavior.

I took care of Problem #2 first, within a few minutes of noticing it. I knew the cause of the problem. This problem has happened to me before. I live in Texas and the climate is apparently perfect for growing algae in the A/C handler’s drip line. The algae, or whatever it is, will grow and block the drip line if you don’t stay on top of it. Eventually, this will cause the line to get backed up and overflow onto my garage floor. I fixed it by blowing out the drip line and then putting a few drops of bleach in the line to prevent future growth. Took me about 20 minutes to fix Problem #2.

The Ostrich Effect

I didn’t get around to fixing Problem #1 until a couple of weeks later. If I wasn’t married, it would have taken me even longer to address it! Why did I decide to put off Problem #1? Consider the ostrich effect. The ostrich effect is a cognitive bias that influences us to ignore potentially negative or dangerous information. We bury our heads’ in the sand like an ostrich.

I knew Problem #2 because I solved it before. It was an inconvenience to clean up the water spill and clear the drip line, but I knew it would take about 20 minutes and everything would be good. Problem #1 was going to be a hassle. There isn’t easy access to the part of the attic directly over my bedroom. It was on the opposite side of the house from the attic entry point. I would have to navigate through insulation, duct work, and wooden beams. It was summer and unbearably hot. Plus, it was a little scary because of the unknown. If I got up into the attic would I discover a nest of raccoons? That feels like a big problem. It would require scheduling and paying an exterminator. What if damage had been done to my attic? This could turn into a major hassle. Cognitive overload! Cue the intuitive system! Ostrich effect big time.

The intuitive system prefers to solve easy problems and likes to ignore complex, challenging problems. For two weeks I would lay in bed when all was quiet answering my wife’s question “did you hear that?”. The intermittent nature of the sound made the ostrich effect all the more powerful. Two days would go by without a sound. “Ah, fixed itself” thoughts would validate my intuitive system’s decision to avoid.

An interesting study from the Columbia Business School illustrates the ostrich effect. The study found that investors check their holdings much less frequently after a downturn in the market. Apparently seeing the depreciation in your investment account is similar to searching for raccoons in your attic.

What does this have to do with workplace safety?

The consequences of the ostrich effect are enormous for workplace safety. The ostrich effect plays a role in many, many major safety incidents. Phrases like “gross negligence” and “despite repeated warning signs” will end up in a safety investigation report because of the ostrich effect. Do your leaders listen to employees’ concerns and act on them? When equipment problems or other issues arise, how long are employee “temporary workaround” solutions allowed to continue before a JSA is conducted?

Back to Problem #1. I wasn’t going to leave you hanging! Luckily, there were no raccoons in the attic. In fact, the attic was completely fine. The culprit was an oak tree branch that would rub against the roof when the wind blew hard enough. Problems solved. I guess that is why our intuitive system is so powerful – it is often right.

improving safety


Brian Dishman Brian Dishman is a Senior Consultant at PSI. He educates safety leaders on the internal factors that impact employee safety. Brian focuses on safety leadership, safety culture development, and the psychology of safety.