Bill Kahn Ph.D.

The Ostrich Effect

The Messiness of Change

Breaking free of the Ostrich Effect is painstaking work

Posted Nov 17, 2012

The gates of understanding swing open and we are free.  Well, not quite.  Insight, as Freud discovered, does not always lead to people doing things differently.  Freud helped people become aware of the unconscious impulses driving them to perform irrational behaviors.  He believed that insight would by itself lead people to act more rationally.  But as countless numbers of people who develop insight about yet remain addicted know, it takes more than understanding to change our lives.  We don’t simply know what we didn’t know before and transform right there and then.

What does happen, though, is that we are better able to make the stream of choices that confront us in key moments because of an awareness of what those choices mean.  The Ostrich Effect retains its power when we are driven by unconscious desires to avoid what we find distressing—and we remain unaware of our doing so.  Once we become aware we are less susceptible.  We are less able to fool ourselves.  But it can still happen.  The wish to avoid distress does not just disappear.  It reappears constantly.  It remains a choice that we can keep making, over and over.  It is when we keep not making that choice that we begin to move away from the gravitational pull of the Ostrich Effect. 

So real change gets messy.  With the best of intentions, we make mistakes, falling into old habits of thought and action.  But over time and often with help we get better at recognizing our mistakes.  We are better able to pause our actions.  We can find a larger perspective from which to view our actions.  We will continue to make mistakes even as we recognize that we are being counter-productive.  But we begin to catch ourselves more often and more quickly, to the point that we pause before acting in ways that are harmful to what we are trying to accomplish.  We are better able to make particular choices in those moments to act more effectively.  We start to contain our impulses.  We can even pay attention to the source of our distress and address it directly.  Our small choices slowly add up to a big choice:  to no longer stay stuck in a place of unmentioned distress. 

Some people will be unable or unwilling to perform similar moves.  The acknowledgement of underlying emotions may remain an unintelligible foreign language they are unwilling to learn.  They may be unable to handle the strong feelings they push away.  They may not believe they are strong enough to survive whatever it is they avoid.  Their defense mechanisms may be too firmly locked in place.  Such people will remain unaware—of themselves, of how they contribute to difficult situations, of how they are perpetrators and not simply victims, of how tightly they are held by their own fears and anxiety.  The status quo may not be frustrating or painful enough.  They may get more out of the way things are then how they might be.  They may not have others in their lives that support and challenge.  They might have not have confidence and faith that things—and they—will turn out okay if they look at what they avoid.  They might just be too scared.

When we are not hobbled in such ways we can choose, finally, to escape the Ostrich Effect.  We can learn what we need to about ourselves and the situations we help create.  We discover a capacity for self-awareness.  We can look at what we had not previously been able to face.  We bring to light what we had pushed into the darkness, the truths about ourselves that we had buried.  These are truths that we had had hid, and hid from, creating partial truths in their stead.  With help, we can look squarely at the truth of our circumstances.  When we do so, we are freed to make choices about who we wish to be and what we wish to do, in full awareness of what those choices mean.

When we are able to do this we unlock something buried and hidden in ourselves.  We help solve the puzzles of others who are difficult and painful to deal with.  In both cases we use deeper understanding to unlock relationships that have gotten stuck in unhealthy places.  And, mostly, we free ourselves or others from being problems at work.  Distress calls are made and heeded; rescue operations are successfully mounted.

About the Author

Bill Kahn, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist at Boston University's School of Management who researches the sources of stubborn problems in work relationships, groups and organizations.

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