Today, I’m excited to share an article from an expert in the field, Matt Coleman, on a fascinating cognitive bias known as the “headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry.” Read on to learn how you can harness an awareness of this bias to improve your everyday life!
Life is hard. In fact, we can all point to events and circumstances that have made our goals more elusive, hindered our happiness, or benefited others unfairly at our own expense.
When we self-reflect, research shows that these “obstacles” tend to stand out in our mind above the many “benefits” in our lives, what researchers Shai Davidai and Tom Gilovich coined the “headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry.”
In other words, akin to riding a bike, we are often unable to ignore a gust of wind blowing in our face slowing us down (i.e., headwinds), while hardly acknowledging when the wind is blowing at our back propelling us forward (i.e., tailwinds).
So, how might this headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry influence your everyday life?
Davidai and Gilovich’s studies demonstrated the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry in a number of domains. For example, Democrats think the electoral college system benefits Republicans, while Republicans think it benefits Democrats. Football fans believe that their favorite teams were given especially grueling schedules. Siblings recall their parents treating the other better than themselves.
However, the electoral college can’t work against both major US political parties, and siblings can’t both be treated worse than the other. What’s important to note, then, is how we can acknowledge tailwinds (while not discounting headwinds) as a tool for self-improvement, embracing humility, and cultivating empathy.
Of course, acknowledging our tailwinds is easier said than done. For example, when I have a headache, I can hardly focus on anything else other than getting rid of it. But on a normal, headache-less day, it’s rare that I wake up and go about my day, noting how grateful I am to not have a headache. It’s just not natural.
If acknowledging our tailwinds can improve our well-being, why is it so tough?
In general, people are motivated to view themselves positively. And by upweighting our disadvantages and downweighting our advantages, it makes our successes appear even more impressive and our failures seem quite understandable.
If you’ve ever patted yourself on the back for doing well on an exam but blamed the teacher when you did poorly, you can probably grasp the powerful force of this psychological self-enhancement.
However, protecting your self image isn’t the only factor explaining the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry. For example, when participants were presented with trials of two different tasks — one easy, one difficult — they actually remembered experiencing the more difficult, effortful trials (headwinds) more frequently than the easier trials (tailwinds).
This, the authors conclude, points to the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry as an availability bias. That is, the fact that headwinds typically require attention, time, and/or effort, it makes them come to mind more easily, while tailwinds can help us along without our notice.
Applications in Our Daily Lives
There are two key ways I think this insight about our psychology can be used to enhance your everyday life.
First, we can leverage this knowledge of the asymmetry by intentionally taking stock of our tailwinds (“the benefits”) and foster gratitude for them, a practice which has been found to have a host of psychological benefits. Doing so may in turn help our social relationships by minimizing feelings of resentment towards others who we may feel have it easier than us.
Second, we can use this knowledge to improve our humility. By appreciating the factors over which we have had little control but benefited from (e.g., technological advancement, aspects of our physical health, educational opportunities, etc.), we can better recognize that our personal successes are a result of collective influences. Moreover, this humbling insight may inspire us to pay it forward, where our positive impact can become someone else’s tailwinds down the road.
None of us chose when, where, or to whom we were born, nor the happenings of the world that have followed. In recognizing that others may not share the tailwinds we were afforded, we can strive to improve the lives of others. Whether being kinder to strangers or donating to support people living thousands of miles away, it is possible to leverage these insights for good.
In closing, let me be clear that I’m not saying our personal achievements aren’t well-deserved, or that we should dismiss the value of hard work, or that the very real disadvantages we face are just a mirage. Instead, my point is that we can all work on turning our attention towards the tailwinds that have made our lives better than they otherwise would be, for the betterment of ourselves and others.
According to the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry, we may just need to look a little harder.
Matt is a first-year PhD student at Northeastern University in the Department of Psychology and a member of the Social Emotions Lab. He graduated from Tulane University with a B.S. in Neuroscience and minors in Psychology and Philosophy. Afterward, he spent two years as lab manager and researcher in the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab at Northeastern. Matt’s research examines how people think about their own well-being, particularly as it relates to time and other people, and the consequences of these self-reflective beliefs on everyday judgments and decisions. You can reach him at [email protected]
Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2016). The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: An availability bias in assessments of barriers and blessings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(6), 835.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2004). The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press.