The Headwinds Paradox (Or Why We All Feel Like Victims)

When you are running into the wind, the air feels like a powerful force. It’s blowing you back, slowing you down, an annoying obstacle making your run that much harder.

And then you turn around and the headwind becomes a tailwind. The air that had been pushing you back is now propelling you forward. But here’s the question: do you still notice it?

Probably not. Simply put, headwinds are far more salient than tailwinds. When it comes to exercise, we fixate on the barrier and ignore the boost.

In a new paper, the psychologists Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich show that this same asymmetry is present across many aspects of life, and not just when we’re running on a windy day.

As evidence, Davidai and Gilovich conducted a number of clever studies. In the first experiment, they asked people which political party was advantaged or disadvantaged by the rules of American democracy, such as the electoral college. As expected, partisans on both sides believed their side suffered from the headwinds, so that Democrats were convinced the political system favored Republicans and Republicans believed it favored Democrats. Interestingly, the size of the effect was mediated by the level of political engagement, with more engagement leading to a stronger sense of unfairness. In short, the more you think about American politics the more convinced you are that the system is stacked against you. (In fairness to Democrats, recent history suggests they might be right.)

A similar effect was also observed among football fans, who were much more likely to notice the difficult games on their team’s upcoming schedule than the easy ones. The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry even shaped the career beliefs of academics, as people in a given sub-discipline believed they faced more hurdles than those in other sub-disciplines.

And then there’s family life, that rich vein of grievance. When the psychologists asked siblings if their parents had been harder on the older or younger child, their answers depended largely on their own position in the family. Older children were convinced that their parents had gone easy on their little siblings, while younger siblings insisted the discipline had been evenly distributed. Mom always loves someone else the most.

According to Davidai and Gilovich, the underlying cause of the headwind effect is the availability heuristic, in which our judgement is distorted by the ease with which relevant examples come to mind. First described by Kahneman and Tversky, the availability heuristic is why people think tornadoes are deadlier than asthma—tornadoes generate headlines, even though asthma takes 20 times more lives—and why spouses tend to overestimate their share of household chores. (We remember that time we took out the garbage; we don’t remember all those times we didn’t.) As Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein point out, the availability bias might be “the most fundamental heuristic” of them all, constantly distorting our judgements of frequency and probability. We see through a glass, darkly; the availability heuristic is often what makes the glass so dark. 

This new paper shows how the availability bias can even warp our life narratives. We think our memory reflects the truth; it feels like a fair accounting of events. In reality, though, it’s a story tilted towards resentment, since it’s so much easier for us to remember every slight, wound and obstacle.

Why does this matter? Didn’t we already know that our memory is mostly bullshit? Davidai and Gilovich argue that this particular mnemonic flaw comes with serious practical consequences. For one thing, the headwind effect makes it harder for us to experience gratitude, which research shows is associated with higher levels of happiness, fewer hospitalizations and a more generous approach towards others. Because we take the tailwinds of life for granted—the headwinds consume all our attention—we have to work to notice our blessings. We easily remember who hurt us; we soon forget who helped us.

This effect can even shape public policy, limiting our interest in helping the less fortunate. We’re so biased towards our adversities that we can’t empathize with the adversities of others, even when they might be far more challenging. And since we tend to neglect our God given advantages—good parents, silver spoons, etc.—we discount the role they played in our success. The end result is a series of false beliefs about what it takes to succeed.

In a recent interview, Rob Lowe lamented the obstacles that had limited his early career opportunities. Handsome actors like himself, he said, are subject to “an unbelievable bias and prejudice against quote-unquote good-looking people.”

We’re all victims. Even beauty is a headwind.

Davidai, Shai, and Thomas Gilovich. "The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: An availability bias in assessments of barriers and blessings." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 111.6 (2016): 835.