The Sledgehammer

The Ostrich Effect

October 2, 2019

At any given time, there are 200+ actual sledgehammers present in the Heartbeat office. To celebrate the first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge—a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you. Clear the way—here comes The Sledgehammer.

DIY genetic testing kits, from companies like Ancestry or 23andMe, were a highly touted item across many of last year’s holiday gift guides. In the quest for a unique gift, what could be more tailor-made than offering a loved one the chance to examine their own double helixes?

Up to now, about 30 million people have bought into this self-curiosity and submitted their spit or swabbed their cheek for analysis. But kit sales have slowed in 2019—so much so that some analysts have tempered the outlook on the product market. Recent reports about privacy concerns certainly could have contributed to this lull, but there may be another culprit: How many consumers truly want to know this information about themselves?

For many, the tests’ revelations about heritage may do nothing more than satisfy a mild curiosity or provide an interesting topic of conversation. But the health-related results—about predispositions or carrier status for certain diseases and cancers—could trigger more intense emotions. In fact, 23andMe’s privacy statement cautions, “You may discover things about yourself and/or your family members that may be upsetting or cause anxiety and that you may not have the ability to control or change.”

Imagine receiving a DIY DNA test for Christmas, submitting it with lighthearted curiosity, and finding out a few weeks later that you have a high likelihood of developing breast cancer or Parkinson’s disease. According to a recent survey, 43% of respondents would rather not know if they have an increased risk of a disease.

What about you? Do you fall into this “ignorance is bliss” camp?

If so, you’re not alone. We all do it—whether it’s delaying opening up a medical bill or waiting to listen to a voicemail that may contain unpleasant news. It’s called “information aversion,” better known as the ostrich effect.

Here’s how it goes: Getting bad news stinks. It gives us anxiety. And no one wants to feel anxious. So even in situations where it may be beneficial to have certain pieces of information (the medical bill, the voicemail, the heads-up on a future medical condition), we choose to avoid it in order to prevent the anxiety. It’s not rational, but it is very real.

Take a look at a few healthcare examples that researchers have uncovered:

  • In a study of college students, researchers offered free info sessions and tests for Herpes Simplex Virus 1 and 2. Type 1 is the cold sore kind—unpleasant but not as severe as type 2, which is associated with genital herpes and is much more stigmatized. The tests were free and confidential, and blood draws were mandatory. However, after info sessions describing HSV 1 and 2 (with graphic photos), students had the option of paying money for their blood sample to be discarded. It turned out that students were three times more likely to pay to avoid being tested for HSV 2 than HSV 1. In other words, the worse the news, the more people wanted to avoid it.
  • In a study of the effects of a breast cancer diagnosis among co-workers, it was found that when a woman was diagnosed with breast cancer, her immediate female co-workers became less likely to have a cancer screen for the next two years—even when they were made available at the office. And not only that, the more aggressive the case of breast cancer, the more likely it was that her co-workers would avoid being tested. Again, the more emotionally difficult the news is, the less we want to hear it.

To bring it back to our work as healthcare marketers, a lot of our patient communications deliver life-altering information related to earlier intervention self-care improvements. For these recommendations to stick and alter behavior, we are asking patients to confront scary truths:

  • The multiple sclerosis patient who ought to confront the potential for future disability
  • The diabetes sufferer who must make huge behavior changes in order to get back on track
  • The worsening cardiology patient who needs to schedule a frank conversation with the doctor about the possibility of a heart procedure

Yet, it’s our job to get through to people! Lives depend on it. So how do we shovel away the sand and break through the ostrich effect? Social scientists have offered a few ways to think about this:

Make it funny. Humor, at its core, helps us deal with anxiety. Psychologists and philosophers describe humor as a release valve that helps us process unpleasantness, nervousness, and worry. Humor isn’t always the right solution, and it requires a finely tuned understanding of your target audience—but when it works, it can work wonders.

Pushing for healthy habits (no matter the subject in question) can feel preachy; humor helps the message resonate in a more enjoyable way.

Make it actionable. Related to the above, the economist Léa Bousquet suggests that the more actionable and useful you make information (she calls this “instrumental value”), the more you outweigh the negative “emotional value” of information. So, doom and gloom on its own is paralyzing, but doom and gloom with a healthy dose of empowerment may be what a patient needs.

To encourage early breast cancer detection, this Indian soap company created “The Soap with a Lump“—a physical reminder that empowers women to be their own first alert against abnormalities by conducting self-checks while in the shower.

Make it routine. When it comes to preventative screening that may deliver scary news, we have evidence that it’s going to be an uphill battle to get patients to opt for a test. To avoid the snowball of anxiety from building, positioning these screens as routine and “no big deal” might be an effective way to combat the ostrich effect.

It’s subtle, but this ad for an Arizona-based HIV non-profit lightens up the idea of HIV testing by likening it to lurking, everyday mishaps.

Make it scary—selectively. The type of actions we ask patients to take might also affect our tactics. In research, it seems like “scare tactics” are sometimes actually effective, but mainly in situations where someone is asked to take a single action. Ongoing behavior change is less successfully triggered by fear.

Trumenba TV ad

Consider this when creating your next campaign: Getting an audience to care is the crux of our job, and it’s crucial to counter the psychological forces that may be working against us—just like they’re a competitor.

P.S. Ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand!