Karma has long been touted as a universal truth. But is it really true that what goes around comes around?

“What goes around, comes around,” is heard everywhere, ominously warning individuals of the reciprocity of selfish, malicious deeds. Ruefully, the concept spawned from a fallacious misinterpretation of how events take place and how we perceive them.

You’re strutting down a busy street on a mild, spring day. Upon rounding the corner, you hear a talented violinist. Right after, you lay eyes on him. He’s a raggedy-looking guy, looking to be in his mid-20s. You sympathize with him. He’s probably got crippling student debt on top of rent and food. Because you’re such a great person, you place a $5 bill in his opened violin case and go about your day.

“Man,”, you think, ‘that was such a good thing to do. I’m probably gonna receive so much good karma from that.’ Miraculously, for the next little while, you notice all sorts of amazing things happening to you. Birds are chirping, the sun is out, and you bump into old friends on your walk. People are smiling at you, holding doors for you. Marks come out for an essay you wrote a few weeks ago and you get a pretty decent mark. “Karma must be real,” you concur, “this is simply amazing.”

Karma is one of most pervasive fallacies around

This is spurious logic. Karma is one of the most pervasive fallacies around. I believe that karma is not the result of a changing environment, but rather the result of a changing perception of that same, unchanging environment. To begin, let’s consider two salient psychological concepts: the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry and confirmation bias. The Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry is a thought-provoking psychology paper recently published by Shai Davidai of the New School in New York and Tom Gilovich of Cornell University. In it, they write that headwinds – barriers or obstacles that you must deal with – are inherently more prominent than tailwinds – things you benefit from. Because we must deal with headwinds, we believe them to be more frequent. They argue that because of “our enhanced availability of our hindrances and challenges.”, we think our lives are harder than they actually are. This reduces our happiness and ability to express gratitude while exacerbating our frustration and stress.

Davidai and Gilovich believe this neglect comes from the availability bias: event A is judged to be more frequent or likely than event B because event A is more easily called to mind. This explains, the duo states, why both Democrats and Republicans believe the electoral map benefits the other party, or why fans think their team has the toughest schedule in the league, or why all kids argue their parents were nicer to their siblings. The very nature of obstacles demands attention. In turn, we develop a false sense of their frequency.

The confirmation bias, on the other hand, is the tendency for humans to conveniently notice and accept evidence that confirms their opinion and ignore evidence that contradicts their opinion.

Combining these two theories together allows us to better analyze the idea of karma. When you are going about your day-to-day life, you inevitably fall victim to the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry. This is human nature. So, when you are walking down the street in that hypothetical situation, you are perceiving life through a relatively neutral, likely negative lens. You are thinking of what you need to remedy rather than what you need to be grateful for. However, after you chuck that disheveled musician a five, your very belief in karma changes that lens.

Your expectation of karma leads to your discovery of karma. You are acknowledging your tailwinds more and your headwinds less. You are falling victim to the confirmation bias. Any evidence that supports your opinion – that you deserve good karma – will be noticed and accepted. Any evidence that contradicts your opinion will be neglected. This is the self-inducing nature of karma. It is the result of changing perception, not a changing environment. Expecting good karma simply facilitates a heightened acknowledgment of our tailwinds.  

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