Don’t Believe Your Own Hype. Be More Enlightened.: The Cause and Effect Fallacy

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
2 min read

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

This is a Latin phrase that translates as: “After this, therefore because of this”

It’s a great Latinate way to describe causality. It is also a phrase that is used to illustrate an illusion: the illusion of cause and effect. We are story telling and pattern fabricating machines. A human is a machine for turning coffee into illusions of meaning. We wind up fooling ourselves often by creating reasons why events unfolded as they did.

By making up these falsehoods, we lose the opportunity to learn from mistakes, failure, and even success. This cognitive bias is am impediment to learning.

As humans trying to grope our way through the world and make sense of events, we are susceptible to attempting to impose meaning where none may exist. The Book of Job makes fun reading on this issue. We gain comfort by feeling we know why things happen. We don’t care if it’s true; so long as it’s comforting.

We also tend to credit our brilliance for success that was more based on the luck of timing and circumstances. Napoleon had few illusions in this regard. When Napoleon Bonaparte was criticized for winning battles simply because of luck, he famously retorted: “I’d rather have lucky generals than good ones.”

Doing after action reports and post mortems are a critical part of learning and gathering lessons from experience. But there are caveats.

Stay humble and don’t put too much credence in your own hype. Our explanations of what happened, and how we got here, are stories we tell ourselves. Don’t fall in love with your first story; wait for the second and let perspectives seep through the porous aspects of your mind. Let the first impulse pass by and wait for the second, or even the third.

And keep in mind Hanlon’s Razor, Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Keep your mind open for learning, and improving, from experience. Its OK to make mistakes. Its unacceptable not to learn from them.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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