Sunday, November 11, 2012

Looking the Other Way: Consequences and the "Ostrich Effect"

Sam Kean wrote recently about his unanticipated response when he had his genome sequenced for a book he was writing.  His grandfather had died of Parkinson’s disease, and when push came to shove, Sam realized that he didn’t want to know if he had inherited a genetic predisposition for it.  "I blacked that information out."  (See this link for the article in The Scientist magazine.)

Sam’s not alone in not wanting to risk bad news even when knowing it might be helpful in preparing for it.  As Sam noted, Nobel laureate James Watson had a similar reaction when he had his genome read.  Less serious, everyday examples aren’t hard to come by either.  I know I sometimes turn off the radio when bad news is broadcast.  The consequences of staying tuned in are just too discouraging.  In my book, I refer to this as the "ostrich effect." 

It may not be all that surprising that animals respond similarly to the prospect of bad news.  Pigeons, for example, learned to peck for a signal indicating the schedule of reinforcement that they could currently work on.  This schedule switched back and forth unpredictably, so the best way to optimize their efforts was to peck periodically for the signal during lean times when few or no rewards could be earned.  Eventually, a more encouraging signal would tell them good times had returned.  Unfortunately, the "bad news" signal stopped most of the birds in their tracks (and thus acted as a punisher)--an effect that's been demonstrated in a number of species now, even fish.  And as we’ve seen, for all our sophisticated intellects and fancy delay-bridging rules and rationalizations, people frequently behave the same way, both in the lab and in real life.  That's the case even when the bad news could be really important.  One of the examples in my book is the large Centers for Disease Control estimate of the number of HIV-positive people in the United States who have avoided taking the simple, inexpensive test to check their status.  Some of them may unknowingly be spreading the disease.

Sam Kean eventually worked up the courage to confront his fears about his possible genetic predisposition to Parkinson’s, and get the facts.  Just as ostriches don’t really bury their heads in the sand, we can learn to face potentially bad news.  What we know about the science of consequences can help us do so.  It still isn’t easy, though.  Anyone want to share examples of how they coped with this all-too-common challenge?

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