THOMAS GILOVICH: I want to take my 10 minutes to talk about a research program that's based on a simple physical metaphor. Anyone who runs for a long distance or cycles for exercise knows that when you're running or cycling into the wind, you're very aware of the wind in your face all of the time.
Our headwinds are incredibly salient to us. They call our attention to them, so much so that we're often thinking to ourselves, god, I can't wait till the course turns around and I can benefit from this wind.
And when that happens, you feel great, for a little while, and then you very quickly adapt to that tailwind. You don't notice it. It doesn't call your attention to it the same way that headwind does. And this is captured.
If you just type into Google Image headwinds and tailwinds, you'll find lots of photos about headwinds, how hard it is to confront them. Interestingly, if you type in tailwinds, you will see no actual pictures. Instead, they're sort of schematic representations of the idea.
And what's true photographically, I want to argue, is true psychologically. Because we have to overcome our obstacles, we're going to be aware of those obstacles.
The things that are giving us a boost, we don't have to pay attention to them nearly as much, and therefore we tend to lose sight of them. And the result of that is that it's very easy to lose track of how grateful perhaps we should be and very easy to become a little bit resentful of perceived burdens that we've had to face that we erroneously think that other people haven't had to face.
So what I want to do is just quickly show you some evidence about the breadth of this phenomenon, so if you-- the NFL season's about to start. Every year, the NFL season announces its schedule. Not all teams play each other, so it's-- they try to keep it balanced, but it isn't. Some schedules are harder than others.
What happens to fans when they see the upcoming schedule, who their team has to play? Given all of the optimistic biases that have been talked about in this very seminar year after year, you might think that people would go, oh, this is great. We're going to have a great year this year.
But the headwind tailwind asymmetry suggests otherwise. You're going to look at the-- oh my god. We got to play the Seahawks in Seattle. This is going to be a disaster.
So to find out how people are actually experiencing their team's schedule this year, we just went on Reddit and looked to see the commentary about their favorite teams the day after the schedule was announced. And what you see is there are many more comments where the fans are bemoaning their team schedule than celebrating their team schedule.
So you see this in the world of sports. You see it in the political world. The United States has this funny thing known as the electoral college where different states with different populations have different electoral votes. Does that work for your side? Does it work against your side?
The headwind tailwind asymmetry suggests that you'd be very aware of how your side has it very difficult and how the other side has it easy, and so we asked-- we just surveyed a bunch of people about their thoughts about the political world. And as you can see, Republicans here in red think that the geopolitical map favors the democrats. The democrats think exactly the opposite, independents sort of recognize, no, it doesn't favor one versus the other.
And interestingly, the effects are stronger for more knowledgeable voters, so we see it in the sports world, political world. You might be relating it to your own situation, which is academia, and you've probably heard people talk about your discipline or your sub-discipline. Oh, well, it's easy for you.
You do that kind-- you do qualitative research. Oh, that's very easy. Or you do quantitative research, or those people who do stuff on embodiment, god, they just seem to publish each other's papers. That's very easy. My stuff, that's really hard.
Are we resentful about what other people in other sub-disciplines, the burdens they face versus the burdens we face? To find out whether that was true, we did a survey of academic accountants. Academic accountants like economists and physicists are of the experimental and non-experimental ilk. And we asked them, who has it harder, experimentalists or non-experimentalists, and then, what are you, an experimentalist or a non-experimentalist?
And as you can see, the experimentalists think that they have it harder than the non-experimentalists do when it comes to publishing, landing a job, getting tenure, or getting grants. So it doesn't matter what element, what part of academia we're talking about. It just seems like other people have it easier than we do.
At this point, you might be saying to yourself, OK, why are you invoking this headwind tailwind asymmetry? Isn't this just self-handicapping? It's not a real phenomenon. People don't think the world's biased against them. But it's nice to stake that claim, because now if my team fails, or my party fails, or I fail, I've got a ready excuse. And if I succeed or my team succeeds, the glory is greater.
The data that I've shown you almost certainly are aided and abetted by self-handicapping, but I don't believe that it's just a self-handicapping phenomenon. And I want to give you two pieces of evidence. I'm not sure one really is evidence, but one is. To convince you that, I have lots of other evidence, but I don't have the time.
Before we get to actual evidence, think about places where you experienced this in your own life. When you play board games where there's an element of chance, and you complain-- like board game players everywhere seem to do. For example, if you play Scrabble, are you knowingly claiming that, no, I didn't get good letters? Or does it really seem like your opponent gets better letters than you?
I'm going to claim it's the-- and if you consult your intuitions you'll recognize-- latter. So if you're playing and you get a hand like that, notice the powerful asymmetry here. You're going to have to live with these letters for a long time. Good luck getting rid of all of those in one hand. That's just not going to happen, so you're going to have them round after-- or at least a large subset of them-- round.
If your opponent has those letters, of course you're unaware of it. What you're going to see from your opponent is when they do things like that, so there's a fundamental asymmetry here. So it's not just self-handicapping.
The other reason we know it's not just self-handicapping because it has implications that aren't predictable by a simple self-handicapping account. That is to say, if you think that you have it harder than other people do, as I said at the beginning, this could make it easier to get in touch with an unpleasant sense of resentment, to lose sight of your better self, to not be grateful.
And so we wanted to return to this survey of academic accountants and see whether because they think that the other area of academic accounting has it easier than they do, are they feeling more resentful? And if you are resentful and not in touch with your better self, are you willing to endorse and embrace questionable research practices to even the playing field? Even though it's already even, in your mind it's not. You want to even it by embracing questionable research practices.
So we asked them at this end of the survey where they said who has it easier, experimental or non-experimental economists. We asked them a bunch of questions about things that-- they're not the most egregious problematic research practices, but they're problematic. How much do you agree with these statements that it's OK to do these things in your research life? The prediction is that the more you think that academic accounting is biased against your sub-discipline, the more you're going to embrace these ideas to balance the scales.
And as you can see, that's exactly right, so the more they think that experimentalists have it harder for experimentalists, the more they believe that, the more they're willing to embrace these questionable research practices. For the non-experimentalists, the less they think experimentalists have it harder-- or in other words, the more they think non-experimentalists have it harder-- the more they're willing to embrace these questionable research practices.
And that's a phenomenon you only get from this sense of resentment. You wouldn't get from simple self-handicapping. We've got other areas in which this shows up. What I want to do to end is just talk about broader places where this kind of resentment that this feeds could play a role.
So if we look at the popularity of the Donald these days, a lot of it is support from white Christian males who are convinced that the world's conspiring against them, this gigantic advantage that they've had for a couple of centuries has diminished just a little bit. But to them, it seems huge, and the world seems biased against them. And so what he's offering is appealing.
I think you can see it in the mistakes that we made in dealing with the Soviet Union, the thought that shock capitalistic therapy, a quick turnaround to an economic system, would be just the ticket to get them on the right footing, failing to appreciate all the headwinds that have benefited us in having the vibrant capitalist economy we do.
Or several times, mistakes that we make in trying to export democracy around the world. See Iraq here, where again, how much in touch are we of the special headwinds that we had when we created it here? And it may not be as easy to create as people suspect.
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Thomas Gilovich, Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, presents current research findings regarding behavioral economics and human decision-making Sept. 8, 2015 as part of the Behavioral Decision Research Workshop Showcase. Sponsored by the Department of Human Development and the Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research at Cornell University.