Economic View

Most Americans view current levels of economic inequality as a problem: In fact, for 30 years, Gallup polls have consistently found a clear majority supporting a more even distribution of wealth and income.

But there is far less agreement on how to achieve that goal. Do we need to level the playing field so that people born to modest circumstances have a better chance? Should we be trying to instill a stronger work ethic in the United States, and build a more robust culture of hard work? Counterproductive and, at times, bitter arguments bog down the search for solutions.

A recent paper by the psychologists Shai Davidai of the New School of Social Research and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University reveals a quirk in human psychology that, I think, is responsible for some of our failure to make much progress on those issues. Understanding that quirk could help us find common ground on how to help the poorest Americans.

In public talks, Mr. Gilovich illustrates the research findings by displaying two separate Google image searches. The first, for “headwind,” elicits many pages of vivid cartoons and photo images, as you will see if you try it yourself. But if you search for “tailwind,” you will be hard pressed to find any compelling images at all.

One metaphor is well represented, both in our imaginations and in our iconography, while the other is neglected.

This asymmetry reflects a deeper psychological bias: We tend to remember the obstacles we have overcome more vividly than the advantages we have been given.

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.

Mr. Davidai and Mr. Gilovich show some of the broader social and political consequences of this psychological asymmetry. They find, for example, that both Democrats and Republicans believe that electoral maps are not apportioned to their advantage. The scholars also find that, within families, people tend to think their parents were tougher on them than their siblings recognize.

Of course, we don’t really know what is going on inside everyone’s mind, but it does appear that many of us overrepresent the obstacles we face.

In many autobiographies, for example, even fortunate people, born to rich, loving families, look back on life and remember all the things that stood in their way. Not only do we play the starring role in our own life stories, but those stories often revolve around struggle.

I see this tendency in myself. When it comes to education, I have won not just one but several birth lotteries: Many children born next to me in rural India struggled to obtain anything beyond simple primary education and maybe a decent high school. Yet I had some of the best educational resources placed right in front of me all the way through my doctorate at Harvard.

I would be foolish if I did not remind myself of these advantages every day. Yet it is telling that I do need to remind myself. My spontaneous thoughts are of the challenges I faced, not the advantages I had.

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.

We often disagree over the source of our success: Those who emphasize the existence of birth lotteries point to the easy ride the well-off have had. Yet relatively privileged people may look at their own lives and feel, “I’ve struggled too.”

Arguing about these perceptions doesn’t seem to be productive. We may try a different approach. Poverty, after all, is not only caused by strong headwinds; it is also characterized by a lack of tailwinds. If we work on creating more tailwinds — by giving poor children more advantages — we can solve many otherwise intractable problems.

Consider that by high school, poor children are doing much worse than those from well-off families. Researchers have found that most of this gap accumulates not during the school year, but in the summer months. In Baltimore, for example, a study has found that the entire achievement gap between the poor and the well-off is accounted for by learning disparities in the summer.

During these months, richer children benefit from summer programs and books around the house, and, more broadly, from the myriad advantages of having parents with the resources, knowledge and time to intellectually engage them. Even conversation around the dinner table can be a tailwind.

Closing the achievement gap could, then, be about generating tailwinds for poor children. In many ways, the provision of decent public education is itself a tailwind; it is, if not a complete equalizer, more equal than home life. But we could do more. For example, some have suggested the creation of a Summer Opportunity Scholarship to help low-income youth.

From a public policy perspective, it may be easier to agree on creating tailwinds than on removing headwinds. Even people who take great pride in having gotten ahead through hard work can, if prompted and upon reflection, recognize the tailwinds that helped them. This recognition does not detract from their genuine effort. Instead, it can be a moment to be thankful, perhaps for a family member who believed in you, or an unexpected piece of good fortune at just the right time.

By focusing on tailwinds, we can sidestep potential disagreements about the role of personal responsibility and initiative. Even with a tailwind, hard work is still needed; that work just yields more reward. A summer scholarship is not a substitute for serious effort.

We could garner support for such programs by asking people to remember the tailwinds in their past: It is a small step from gratitude for one’s blessings to the realization that everyone can use a little help, the poor most of all.