Windmills, Limiting Beliefs and Reverse Causality

Imagine an alternate universeĀ in which you are a traveler from another planet. You are a human, but you’ve spent your entire life inside a spacecraft. You’ve been traveling through space since before you can remember, and you’ve just arrived on earth.

When you land on earth, many things which are commonplace to others are new and mysterious to you. Your alternate-universe self hasĀ never before set foot in nature (or even on the surface of a planet at all), and it’s a bit tough to make sense of how everything works together.

So many things about the earth are sources of wonder. The buildings, the rivers, the oceans, all of the man-made structures. Even the natural ocurring gravity. Above all, your attention is continually drawn to the wind itself. You find the wind completely captivating. Not only is there a naturally occurring atmosphere, but the very air around you seems to move all on its own. You set off wandering the earth to determine what causes the wind.

As you travel, you notice that the wind is stronger in some places than in others. Maybe the mountaintops produce the wind? Or maybe it’s the sea? Unsatisfied, you continue searching.

One day, as you walk along the side of the road, you see these devices:

As you watch them, it all becomes clear. Any time the wind is blowing, the blades at the top of these devices are turning. When the wind is still, the blades are still.

You draw the obvious logical conclusion: These devices make the wind. Because the blades are turning, the air is moving. Mystery solved!

Cause and Effect

Cause: Why something happened.
Effect: The thing that happened.

Clearly, the wind turns the blades, not the other way around. Our alternate-universe selves were tripped up by a known fallacy called Reverse Causality. Reverse Causality happens when the cause is thought to be the effect, and vice versa. Instead of concluding that the wind moves the blades, our alternate universe selves concluded that the blades produce the wind. In this universe, that conclusion is obviously backward.

However, if we pause for a moment and consider that our alternate-universeĀ selves were raised in an environment where even the gravity was artificially produced by machines, the conclusion that windmills make the wind doesn’t seem so unreasonable. It fits a lifetime of observable patterns that our alternate-universe selves were familiar with.

Thankfully, we’ve all learned about cause and effect since we were kids, and we know better than our alternate-universe selves. Reverse Causality is just an amusing thought experiment. Or is it?

Reverse Causality in Every Day Life

We’ve been exposed to cause and effect our entire lives, yet we still make the same mistake that our alternate-universe selves made in the story above. At least I do. This can be extremely limiting because I often interpret cause and effect so incorrectly that it holds me back from doing things that would greatly improve my life.

I’ll illustrate with some examples. The following are all things I’ve told myself and used to put limitations on my own life.

We’ll start with some easy ones related to self-improvement:

  • Because I’m not in better shape, I don’t go to CrossFit.
  • Because I have trouble calming my mind, I don’t meditate.
  • Because I’m not flexible, I don’t go to yoga.
  • Because I’m not a morning person, I don’t wake up early and read or exercise.

It has limited my creativity and self expression:

  • Because I’m not a writer, I don’t start a blog.
  • Because I’m not a photographer, I don’t dedicate time to shooting photos or share them with others.

It has limited my relationships:

  • Because I don’t know that family, I don’t invite them over.
  • Because we aren’t close, I don’t make a point to spend time with my friend.
  • Because I don’t know anyone there, I don’t attend that special event or class.

It has limited my professional and technical accomplishments:

  • Because my coworker won’t understand, I don’t tell him my ideas.
  • Because my use cases are unique and special, I don’t consider solving them with established patterns.
  • Because I’m not seen as an expert, I don’t sign up to present what I know.

All of these things are obviously backward. It just takes a slight reframe to see them for what they really are. By moving one word, we can see them clearly:

  • I’m not in better shape because I don’t go to CrossFit.
  • I have trouble calming my mind because I don’t meditate.
  • I’m not flexible because I don’t go to yoga.
  • I’m not a morning person because I don’t wake up early and read or exercise.
  • I’m not a writer because I don’t start a blog.
  • I’m not a photographer because I don’t dedicate time to shooting photos or share them with others.
  • I don’t know that family because I don’t invite them over.
  • We aren’t close because I don’t make a point to spend time with my friend.
  • I don’t know anyone there because I don’t attend that special event or class.
  • My coworker won’t understand because I don’t tell him my ideas.
  • My use cases are unique and special because I don’t consider solving them with established patterns.
  • I’m not seen as an expert because I don’t sign up to present what I know.

These all seem obvious to me now. But for each one there was a time when the erroneous version seemed like the obvious logical conclusion. The list above represents the result of a series of individual epiphanies over several years. It’s only recently that I’ve come to see the broad pattern of Reverse Causality in my errors.

Overcoming the Limitations

So what can be done about this? I’m not entirely sure, but now that I’ve noticed this tendency I try to watch out for it inin my own thinking. Whenever I think I “can’t” do something, I try to determine what is holding me back. Then, IĀ  challenge myself to reverse the cause and effect and see if it makes sense.

Even when I notice, correcting my thinking doesn’t instantly fix my relationships, make me an expert in my field, get me in shape, or otherwise enrich my life, but it does unlock doors that I previously didn’t think I could open. It opens the door to experiences and relationships that I never would have tried before.

Do you find yourself falling into these patterns of thought? What do you do about it?

5 comments Write a comment

  1. Very interesting topic and in reality so true! Thank you for encouraging us to change our thought patterns and therefore transform us!

  2. Eric,

    Well-written post! I enjoyed reading it. Not only do we as adults fall into this type of thinking often, our kids do too. I’m going to ask my fifteen year old daughter to read this. Perhaps it will help mitigate the natural inclination to find an excuse or seemingly justifiable reason not to pursue something we believe to be worthwhile.

    • Thank you David! You showing this to your daughter is the best compliment. When you write something, you never know who it will resonate with, and it means a lot that you think it might help her. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Really like this. It made me think of a Zen kong-an in which 2 monks were arguing over a flag moving in the wind. One said that the flag was moving. The other said the wind was moving. Hui-neng, the sixth Zen patriarch, who was passing by said, “You’re both wrong. Your mind is moving.”

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