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Ostrich problem: the main reason why it is so hard to reach our goals

Posted December 1, 2014

Winter is a festive season – it’s time for eating, drinking, spending money and being merry, and any thoughts of reaching goals like finding new job, losing weight or keeping finances in place go out through the window.

Christmas and any other holiday times are the hardest periods to reach all goals, no matter what they are. People seem to get blindsided about overeating and overspending, they closing their eyes and trying to avoid thoughts about winter plans. Why do people like to make things off-limits? Why does it seem so hard to be patient to reach our goals? These questions were the main object in one of the newest studies from the University of Sheffield.

In this study, a team of psychologists from the United Kingdom determined how monitoring progress can influence a person’s ability to achieve a goal. Psychologists found that the Ostrich problem has the main influence in our self-regulation and patience required to reach our goals. This problem means that people like ostriches intentionally ‘bury’ their heads in the sand and fail to monitor the relation between their current behavior and their desired behavior. Some people aren’t motivated to reach their goals but they prefer to avoid or reject all information about goal’s progress, even for goals that they rate as important.

Why might people intentionally avoid or ignore information pertaining to their goal progress?

Psychologists say, people are afraid to know unpleasant information about themselves. They may “bury their heads in the sand” when they expect that goal progress could be poor because it may reflect negatively on their feelings and be psychologically embarrassing. For example, people who spent much more money during Christmas time than they expected, they trying to modify self-monitoring finance limit, to avoid all negative feelings and escape from reality and everything that comes with it. People believe that true information will be inconsistent with their view of themselves, information which shows a discrepancy in the current state and desired state can shock them and result in abandonment of their goal.

Scientists suggested that for people who feel strong need to maintain a favorable self-image, the Ostrich problem is most likely to occur. Another reason is that people have low expectations from the progress report or if they are low on self-confidence have the main possibility of the Ostrich Problem.

Conflict among self-motivation and true information can result that people may be torn between obtaining information that might be useful but psychologically unpleasant, and avoiding that information in order to feel better. In this study scientists found three factors which affect the extent and quality of tracking progress. They believe that these factors influence the Ostrich problem and being able to understand them is the most important to achieve goals. Firstly, human motivation depends on how important the goal is – during the study, measures of goal value correlated with measures of self-monitoring. Secondly, how much patience people have to persist (e.g. exercise) till the goal is achieved. And the last factor included situational factors (e.g., accountability for performance), as it can affect the nature and extent of progress monitoring.

Scientists think that these factors are significant in monitoring goal progress, and they are crucial to consider how the Ostrich problem can be overcome. The authors of study think that techniques such as mindfulness and self-compassion can help people to deal with the negative implications of (anticipated) poor progress and thus prompt monitoring. They mentioned that mindfulness can overcome ego-protective motives that affect how people process information about themselves.

The Ostrich Problem still is relatively new subject in the research world and there’s a long way to go before definite means could be suggested to avoid this problem. However, interim understanding of the motives of those who refuse to track progress towards goals can help us to make headway.


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