The Law of Reversed Effect

We should all get a little more familiar with what Alan Watts called the ‘backwards law’ or the ‘law of reversed effect’.

It is the operating law underlying quicksand, where struggling only takes you further into the dip. It appears when people make themselves very stiff and sturdy only to quickly lose their balance, and it will help you realise that the quickest way to lose your breath is to hold onto it. If you try to float, you sink; and if you try to sleep, you wake. The point is that sometimes our actions create consequences opposite to our intentions.

A fine example reads something like this: do not think of pink elephant.

But you did, didn’t you?

Get rid of that thought! Get the idea out of your head. Do it.

But you can’t, can you?

The more you try to get rid of it, the more you cement its presence in your mind. The only way for it to go away is by giving up the goal of even trying to get rid of it, and letting it dissipate on its own. You get to where you want to be, but by giving in rather than trying harder.

A closely related Eastern philosophical principle is Wu-Wei. Wu means: non, not, no, negate; Wei means, among many things: action, making, exerting, and perhaps most exactly, forcing. Wu-Wei, then, is the principle of not forcing. To put it the other way round, it is essentially the principle of ‘going with the flow’, of sailing rather than rowing.

The law of reversed effect and Wu-Wei converge in the observation that sometimes our desires are best achieved, not by pursuing them, but by acting as if we didn’t want them at all. This means, first and foremost, not trying to push things one way or another. That is, do not force life. A forced joke is as painful as a forced bowel movement; and both guarantee to achieve the opposite of their intention.

If you are anything like me, you want to be happy. But, by wanting to be happy, I immediately affirm the counter position: unhappiness. Desiring happiness, if anything, constantly reminds me I am not happy, which, predictably, might make me a little unhappy. By becoming so invested in being happy, I am making myself miserable. Trying to be happy is the reason I’m not. Replace ‘happiness and unhappiness’ with ‘security and insecurity’ or ‘wakefulness and sleep’ and you have the basic formula.

What do we do? The answer is clear, but isn’t necessarily easy: we must give-in, be patient, and let things happen without getting in the way. Of course, you can’t try to give-in or be patient – that will only entrench the idea of what you are giving in to or waiting for. You must give up on the idea of trying to achieve your goal, and then, with backwards magic, you will have it.

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