This article proposes a newly defined concept, the ‘mooning effect’, to represent and highlight external consequences produced by information avoidance. It aims to challenge conventional knowledge in behavioural science by posing the question: Have we been focusing too much on the wrong side of the ostrich?

When an ostrich senses danger, it is alleged to stick its head in the sand to avoid the sense of anguish associated with an impending threat. Fittingly, the ostrich effect has become a commonly utilised concept in behavioural science to describe how individuals or organisations mirror this instinct by evading important information that is uncomfortable, unpleasant, or costly in nature. This often leads to inaction and negligence and can make a variety of matters worse. For example, individuals may avoid unfriendly tax payments, put off doctor’s visits, and organisations may neglect damning reports about climate change.

Conveniently, such downstream impacts of the ostrich effect can be illustrated within the same image by simply observing the ostrich’s other side. This is because in the process of plunging its head into the ground, the ostrich also naturally exposes its backside towards rest of the world in a ‘moon-like’ fashion. This may not be the focus or intention of its action; however, it is a cheeky consequence that is left for onlookers to endure.

We propose that this representation of external consequences to the ‘head in the sand’ metaphor be dubbed the mooning effect. The mooning effect is the creation of new costs or risks that are inflicted on external parties through an individual or organisation’s own information avoidance. It occurs strictly as a subsequent impact of the information avoidance associated with the ostrich effect. While the ostrich effect resembles the initial behavioural inclination to avoid vital information, the mooning effect reflects the unpleasant costs and risks that the ostrich generates for external parties to bear.

Despite how the optics of the mooning effect may appear, the ostrich’s intention would likely never be to moon anyone at all. Rather, it focuses on its own nosedive into obliviousness, and the mooning comes as a natural physical consequence of bending over to do so. This aptly symbolizes the circumstances of many information avoiders, who may find themselves in any of the following positions:

  • They didn’t mean to create a cost or risk for others.
  • They don’t realize that they have created a cost or risk for others altogether.
  • They fail to learn about the consequences of their actions, allowing for the act to be repeated.

Nevertheless, the mooning effect can represent dangerous and substantial impacts that highlight the hazards of information avoidance across a range of domains, notably healthcare. In cases such as the following examples, the costs of avoiding health related information extend beyond the individual and create hazards for others.


Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

The mooning effect is exemplified by suboptimal testing behaviours for infectious diseases such as STIs. While sexually active young people are recommended to undergo regular STI testing, a 2018 survey found that 64% of people in the UK report never having done so. Fear, shame, embarrassment, and social stigma are identified as primary barriers to STI testing, particularly among young people (age 15-24) who represent 48% of diagnoses. A lack of knowledge-seeking, education, and awareness is consistently reported as an obstacle for detection and treatment, while fear of positive tests along with the stigma associated with STI testing are shown to potentially outweigh the positives of information-seeking activities related to testing.

Unfortunately, these sentiments appear to translate to a tentativeness to act on information even when made aware of it, as if to pretend it doesn’t exist. A Public Health England/Yougov study revealed that 58% of UK young adults would find it difficult to talk to their sexual partner about it if they had an STI. Furthermore, 56% of men and 43% of women report that it would be difficult to talk about STIs with friends. The sum of this dynamic amounts to strong ‘ostriching’ behaviour.

The costs of this information avoidance are borne not only by the individuals who neglect knowledge about their own health status, but by external parties including their sexual partners, overall community sexual health, and added cost to the healthcare system. Furthermore, data evidence in the UK suggests that LGBTQ+ groups, certain ethnic minority communities, and those in socioeconomically deprived areas would be most impacted by increased STI transmission. In effect, these blameless groups are most vulnerable to being ‘mooned’ by the information avoidance of others.


Genetically Inherited Diseases

Genetically inherited diseases often require a more proactive means of information-seeking to obtain relevant health related indications via genetic testing. However, people are found to be even stronger information avoiders, with weaker intentions to learn about their own test results, when diseases are perceived to be unpreventable. While there is not necessarily any moral obligation to voluntarily pursue genetic testing, this heightened degree of avoidance may present a barrier to learning about critical genetic predispositions. This can arguably result in the mooning effect when considering potential secondary impacts on next generations.

Information provided by genetic testing can deliver a multitude of benefits for an individual’s children and future generations. This includes receiving accurate diagnoses and suitable therapies, advanced monitoring and early intervention, and benefits to family planning. Avoidance of this type of information could lead to a generational information insufficiency that accelerates sub-optimal health outcomes.


COVID-19 testing

“When you do testing to that extent, you are going to find more people, you will find more cases. So I said slow the testing down.”

This quote from Donald Trump about reducing COVID-19 testing unwittingly epitomized ‘ostriching’ behaviour on a presidential scale. Given that the United States has passed one million total COVID-19 deaths, it is clear that averting his eyes did not make the problem go away. With this national strategy of information avoidance, it’s evident the former president was, in essence, mooning the American people at large.


Second-hand smoke

The risks of smoking are also well established, however passive smoking (second-hand smoke) remains a significant health hazard, especially to children. To mitigate second-hand smoke, the NHS recommends to always smoke outside, to ask visitors to smoke outside, and never to smoke in the car or allow anyone else to. However, due to those who are wilfully ignorant to such impacts, approximately 2 million children in the UK are exposed to the effects of second hand-smoke in the home. By avoiding or disregarding information about recommendations on passive and in-home smoking, external parties, particularly children, are exposed to significantly increased health risks.

In conclusion, the mooning effect exists all around us. In some capacity, someone is likely to be inadvertently mooning you right now – and probably, you are doing the same to someone else. By reframing the ostrich effect to include a more complete picture of information avoidance, the mooning effect could illuminate its holistic impacts and trigger a sense of altruistic duty in information-seeking. Therefore, in future renderings of the ostrich effect, it’s important to try not to avoid the uncomfortable sight of the ostrich’s elevated behind by focusing only on its head in the sand, and instead pause to consider the wider, unintended impacts this behaviour may have.


By David Manshreck

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