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English Version | Between Shadow and Light

Curiosidades 7. 10. 2021

English Version | Ostriches, etc.

by Carolina Queirós


To bury your head in the sand is the underground behavior of choice. What was first seen as a stereotypical idiosyncrasy of ostriches, soon extended to other reigns and species. Category: ostriches, etc. 

© Medhi Sef

Let’s dive right into the subject, which is the same as saying, with our head above the sand (we’ll get there): human behavior, in all its glory and complexity, is based on stimuli and consequential responses. All clear up to this point. However, in the case of the aforementioned analogy, it’s important we question the reason why it’s so appealing to resort to this type of response as a way to avoid problems or confrontation. Why it is so deliciously tempting to go underground, similarly to how we were used to perceive (and mimic) a certain typical response (allegedly) of ostriches. We associate it to the habit of avoiding certain confrontational and problematic situations, as the metaphorical personification of some sort of cowardness or escape from the problem at hand. There is, however, a small detail to consider that defies this narrative just as much as it supports it: ostriches don’t, in fact, bury their heads in the sand. What happens in reality, is a dissimulation tactic before the enemy, in which the ostrich positions its body in order to resemble a huge bush, only placing its head on the ground… which means that, despite erroneous, the root of the expression results from the appropriation of an apparent behavior of this animal (which is fundamentally different), but that rather comes to be through the comparison between the human behavior and the one of the ostrich: many times, it’s easier to play dumb – or a bush – and try to hide away from problems. And vice-versa. 

I can imagine the number of raised eyebrows and the growing expression wrinkles that have piled up over the last few seconds, hence why it seems better to resort to the expertise of Dr. Diana Ramos, psychologist at the Centro Hospitalar e Universitário do Porto, so she can help us decode the underlying complexity of the subject. Starting off with the myth of the ostrich, we begin by pointing out a more practical application of the term: “By transposing it from biology to psychology, what seems to be an avoidance of the adverse situation, might be, in the majority of cases, the result of a mix of character, temperament and soft skills, which determine the tendency of some individuals to stick to themselves, even if under the deceiving image of ‘burying their head in the sand’”. During my primordial analysis of the subject, this set of denominators in this equation was not at all surprising – perhaps due to the notion that (almost) nothing is as simple as it seems, especially when talking about human behavior. A question then arises: can we consider this response as an instinct, or as a result of the processes of the rational conscience? “Just like human beings respond to their environment in two different ways, the escape from pain and search for pleasure, so does the answer to that question can assume two possibilities: on one hand, if a certain experience is perceived as overwhelming to the physical, moral and/ or emotional structure’s integrity, then it’s expected that the behavioral response may be, instinctively, of escapism from the painful reality, denying it; on the other hand, if the perceivably unpleasant situation does not question the sense of preservation, then it’s likely that the response will result from a thought-through choice of not prioritizing the contact with that particular reality, simply ignoring it. Thus, the motivation for our behavior is the satisfaction of our personal needs”, the specialist explains. 

This concept awoke an extremely particular subconscious memory. Although frequently used as an excuse to flee to the nearest underground by most of my economists-to-be colleagues, Philosophy and Ethics was one of my favorite classes of the entire degree. Critical thinking was encouraged, the exams required pages and pages of writing and analysis, and classes were made of debates and discussion of ideas – some of the reasons why so many students were uninterested were precisely the ones that made me love it. One of the most interesting classes we had was precisely around the topic of Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs and his theory. Seeking out personal and professional satisfaction, Abraham Maslow dissected the necessary conditions, grouping them into five categories according to their importance. The model thus suggests that, as human beings, we’re motivated to satisfy physiological needs first (for example the access to food, water, shelter and sleep), followed by safety needs (of oneself, family, body and property); then come the social needs, where love, friendship, family and community are inserted; then, the need for esteem, encompassing recognition, status and self-esteem; and finally, self-actualization needs, like creativity, talent and personal development. As I costly tried to draw a perfect triangle on my notebook, I remember thinking about how this theory managed to put the relativity of human experience in perspective so brilliantly. Diana Ramos intervenes: “Although the hierarchy or pyramid of human motivations puts forward more and more the importance of our own interpersonal, esteem and personal realization needs, we understand, thanks to neuroscience, that our functioning and response to many situations of confrontation is still quite ‘primitive’, such as problems that might trigger feelings of fear, insecurity or uncertainty. Under this light, and given the fact that, in current times, we’re not as vulnerable to threats that could put our subsistence at risk, I believe ‘running from the problem’ is the result of something more conscious as a choice.” 

Speaking of the dichotomy conscient versus unconscious, may those who have never given in to the temptation of answering to a personality test, figuring out more about their personality along the way, throw the first stone. From the 16 personalities test to the test of colors, and all the others in between, and thanks to the wonders of cybernetic literacy, we’re a few clicks away from figuring out, well… who we are. Human beings are like moths attracted by the flame that is an opportunity to find out more about themselves. Completing an online test for a few minutes seems like a reasonable price to pay for the psychological sense of relief we feel from that attempt to go deeper, especially when we’re aware that dedicating time to think about ourselves can quickly become an arduous and exceptionally painful task. Thus, we look for the quickest detour to satisfy our curiosity; we want to know which letters describe this or that personality the best, if we possess more of an introvert or extrovert base, which careers better suit our intrinsic characteristics, which personas from history or entertainment we share the most psychological traits with, how compatible are certain personalities in a friendship or relationship… Isn’t this a direct translation of the law of half-doing? We are, in our own way, but with no exception, lazy. “All throughout Nature, both in fauna and in flora, we verify the existence of this way of half-doing things – to employ the least amount of energy possible when there are multiple options of actions before an external demand. In terms of human behavior, the same phenomenon occurs – if we can act with less effort, that instinctive behavioral tendency will be to act accordingly. So, due to the amount of demands we’re exposed to coming from our surroundings and relationships, if the uncomfortable situation isn’t threatening enough to our normative system, it will certainly be more appealing to ‘not even care’, ‘ignore’, ‘play dumb’, meaning… ‘to bury one’s head in the sand’, or in the ‘underground’.” Diana Ramos enlightens. 

We live, then, in a permanent status of mental lethargy when it comes to understanding who we are, what we want, and the consequential reasons for such. Taking the example of generation Z and millennials, we’re individuals that piously believe in the strength of “manifesting”, we’re motivated to trust we will “attract” what belongs to us, and forcing the answers to find us, instead of asking ourselves any questions in the first place. We don’t forsake a good dose of ambition, but we also don’t go out looking for ways and paths to reach it – we prefer those that give us an uninsured warranty that “what will be, will be”. To believe is paramount, undisputable. But the lack of investment we dedicate to it is the perfect recipe to avoid and alienate any possibility of resistance or contrary. We can’t even consider it a true confrontation, it’s just friction, and the answer, this we already know. I then find myself faced with another question: is it possible that, depending on each person’s personality, that the tendency to resort to the underground also varies? Diana Ramos elaborates: “It seems more relevant to address, not the types of personality, but of temperament as a special aspect of personalities, because it determines the tendency of one’s behavior. Generally speaking, and without going too deep into the analysis, the term ‘burying one’s head in the sand’ could be highlighted as a symbolic behavior for those described as ‘cold’ individuals – introverts – and more specifically the ones of phlegmatic behavior (emotionally stable, however fearful, indecisive, antisocial, inflexible and pouty).” 

Going back to the generational aspect, surely it wouldn’t be that foolish to consider how this saturation – relational, interpersonal and of information, in general -, might have played an incredibly important role in the establishment of the underground as a mechanism of self-defense. If on one side, we are not proactive enough, on the other, faced with the bombarding of expectations and demands to which we feel the need to respond, then we shut down. In Business Schools, there’s one basic concept that is transmitted right from the start: the most precious good one can have (as managers, economists, or simply human beings) is time. It’s the only resource that continuously and indefinitely runs down. Putting these two ideas together, we can then conclude we’re terrible managers. The way we manage our attention and availability is so poor that it turns us into easy targets for this feeling of overload, of falling short on what’s expected, and which what we’re not exactly well prepared to overcome/ equipped to deal with. “Nowadays, we’re in the time of cyber-diseases, a phenomenon we would have never dreamed of a few years back. If we consider the suffering caused by nomophobia, by the syndrome of the ghost touch, by digital nausea, of even FOMO – fear of missing out -, we can conclude, unequivocally, that the external stimulations of our environment (the non-stop rhythm of the production of knowledge, novelty, and news) overcome and overwhelm our capacity to respond to it. This generates stress. If it’s too intense and continuous in time, it will saturate our resources to manage it successfully. In this perspective, distress, on one hand provoked by the incapacity to accompany such diversified experiences, real or virtual, and on the other, caused by our inability to ‘disconnect’ due to the risk of living adrift and excluded, is such an alarming fact that the response to run away and avoid it all seems more than attractive, it comes as an important form of self-regulation”, Diana Ramos sums up. 

It would be great to have an instructions manual. A sign we’re on the right path, that the priorities of our pyramid aren’t as inverted and unarranged as they look, that the confrontations and adversities we anticipate can be overcome by more than just burying our head in the sand. The underground, which takes the form of a metaphorical refugee, is appealing, perhaps it always will be, but more and more I believe that my Philosophy and Ethics Professor was right. When tutoring us on economic models, their respective pros and cons, and adjacent philosophies, the discussed conclusion left a class of 40 people with their brains tingling: there are no perfect models, there are no bullet-proof theories, and most certainly, there are no miracle solutions. In the end of this tunnel though, there was light, what we can call “middle-ground”. There’s nothing less appealing, correct, but nothing is truer. Balance – that famous middle where Aristotle found virtue – is the true objective. Not as a personification of disinterest or indifference, but as a form of motivation that can battle the extremes of our own behavior. Instead of choosing to bury it, perhaps it’s time we simply lay our head in the sand. Not as a form of dissimulation, but to keep ourselves above the ground, even if it means we’ll have to face our problems. My professor was right, and so were the ostriches. 

Originally translated from the The Underground Issue, published in October 2021.
Full credits and stories on the print issue.