How do you get people with power and resources to care for the less fortunate? That’s a key question in politics and psychology, and the short answer is: “It’s hard.” Generally speaking, people who are doing well in life are benefiting from whatever’s going on at the moment and are unlikely to want to change it. For people who feel like things are going a-okay, it can be difficult to convince them otherwise — they’re quite motivated to believe the world is fair as it is.
In a very interesting column which ran in the New York Times last week, Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard psychologist and the co-author with Eldar Shafir of the excellent book Scarcity, writes about an interesting psychological asymmetry that ties into this discussion: We’re much more likely to remember bad luck than good luck. That is, memories of adversity we have overcome tend to loom much larger in our minds than the teacher who cut us some slack or the uncle that lent us money when we needed it most.
Drawing on some recent work by Shai Davidai of the New School of Social Research and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University, Mullainathan uses the concept of headwinds-versus-tailwinds to explain how this tends to play out in people’s views of themselves and their lives:
This bias is embedded in our day-to-day lives. Most of our time and energy goes toward overcoming the challenges immediately in front of us. Headwinds demand attention because they must be overcome. Tailwinds may evoke a momentary sense of well-being and gratitude; but primarily, they free us to focus elsewhere, on challenges that must be overcome.
This cognitive bias, I think, sheds light on persistent disagreements over inequality and opportunity that affect many of us in American society.
When we see our own past in terms of the headwinds we managed to overcome, it is easy to attribute the failure of others to a lack of perseverance. When poor children drop out of high school, someone who complains that these children don’t have an adequate work ethic may be remembering educational hurdles that she managed to surmount early in her own life.
The rest of Mullainathan’s article focuses mostly on making the argument that, “From a public policy perspective, it may be easier to agree on creating tailwinds than on removing headwinds.” But it’s worthwhile to unpack the psychological dynamics here a bit more. What does it mean, if the goal is to get people to realize that the world is an unfair place and we should work to remedy that fact, that people have trouble recognizing good luck, but tend to cognitively latch on to bad luck?
The headline of the article, which Mullainathan probably didn’t pick given how newspaper editing works, is “To Help Tackle Inequality, Remember the Advantages You’ve Had.” Well, maybe. But what if that’s too much of an uphill battle? Should we harp on people, check-your-privilege-style, to remember all the good luck they’ve had when we know that the message is unlikely to stick, that people a tendency to weave self-serving stories about their own gumption and stick-to-it-iveness? Morally, it feels like the right thing to do — it’s really frustrating when people don’t understand that.
But think about it this way: If you were trying to get a rich person who had access to top-notch schooling growing up to, say, vote for a bill that would expand funding for his city’s severely under-resourced public schools, would you make that appeal by pointing out to him that he benefited from great schools, or by pointing out all the flaws in the city’s public schools?
If you had to choose just one, there’s a strong case to be made for the latter. People respond more viscerally to negative stuff than positive stuff, all else being equal, and if you could paint a really dire picture of what’s going on in his school, you might cause him to reflect on his own advantages anyway, but without the risk of triggering a reaction from him along the lines of what Mullainathan is discussing: Well, sure, we had great teachers and facilities — but this one time I totally stayed up all night studying for an AP exam. I worked really hard!
In the real world, of course, everyone is making a mix of positive and negative arguments all the time. But given the popularity at the moment of the “check your privilege” line — and given how attentionally challenged everyone is — it might be worth thinking critically about which lines are the most likely to actually nudge people’s behavior or beliefs.