Category: Planning / Topics: Government Management Science & Technology

Unintended Consequences - Part 1

by Stu Johnson

Posted: November 5, 2015

A personal experience leads to thoughts about unintended consequences (part 1 looks at making matters worse)

Improving Flathead Lake kills native fish

Very tall smokestacks and widespread acid rain

Because of the length of this blog, it is broken into two parts. In Part 1 we look at a personal example of unintended consequences that got me thinking about the topic and a list of numerous examples of consequences that represent new problems. In Part 2 we look at some examples of unexpected benefits, definitions and causes of unintended consequences, and some hints on preventing or dealing with them.  

It’s been more than a month since my last blog. Blame it on unintended consequences.

“Turning lemons to lemonade”

Back in the summer one of my client websites was having problems in its content management system (CMS—used by site administrators to manage site content). It was frustrating because the affected features worked fine on my local computer, but not on the live site. Fortunately, it did not affect the site itself and could be managed, though that required time-consuming workarounds. Similar problems had occurred in the past and I pointed out solutions that worked earlier to the technicians at the web host. This time, “no joy.”

In the process of trying to resolve the problem, a technician admitted (perhaps unintentionally or out of his own frustration) that they had experienced problems with their implementation of the current version of the web application software.  I had been considering upgrading to the newest version, feeling it would take some time to prepare for the transition, but now it seemed the only solution. The immediate problems were fixed, but there were unintended consequences. The functionality was back, but the layout of some pages and a few specific features were messed up.

Addressing the new issues became a matter of “turning lemons to lemonade.”  Going beyond the immediate fixes needed over thousands of lines of code, it presented an opportunity to update and standardize features that had been introduced over nearly a decade, going back through several generations of the web application software.

This whole experience led me to think about “unintended consequences”—whether they are unexpected problems resulting from solving another problem, sometimes making the original situation worse; or situations that produce unexpected benefits. Let’s look at some examples.

Making matters worse

  • A friend who lost a long-standing job was recently hired to manage part of a new acquisition by the parent company. The acquisition was apparently made without thorough vetting and turned out to be more burden than benefit. The friend will lose that job, but has several options to stay within the parent company. (A combination of unintended consequences for the initial decision by the company, but a potentially unexpected benefit for the friend).
  • Risk compensation, or the Peltzman effect, occurs after implementation of safety measures intended to reduce injury or death (e.g. bike helmets, seatbelts, etc.). People may feel safer than they really are and take additional risks which they would not have taken without the safety measures in place. This may result in no change, or even an increase, in morbidity or mortality, rather than a decrease as intended. [1]
  • The British government, concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi, offered a bounty for every dead cobra. This was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward, but eventually enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse. (Cobra effect) [1] See also Daniel Morgan’s comments on the Cobra Effect on [3]
  • It was thought that adding south-facing conservatories to British houses would reduce energy consumption by providing extra insulation and warmth from the sun. However, people tended to use the conservatories as living areas, installing heating and ultimately increasing overall energy consumption. [1] [a]
  • In CIA jargon, "blowback" describes the unintended, undesirable consequences of covert operations, such as the funding of the Afghan Mujahideen and the destabilization of Afghanistan contributing to the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. [1][b-d]
  • During the Four Pests Campaign [affecting rice production] a killing of sparrows was declared. Chinese leaders later realized that sparrows ate a large amount of insects, as well as grains. Rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased.[1] [e]
  • During the Great Plague of London a killing of dogs and cats was declared. The animals could have helped keep in check the rat population carrying the fleas which transmitted the disease.[1][f]
  • The draining of American wetlands since colonial times, resulting in flash-flooding and seasonal droughts.[1]
  • The installation of smokestacks to decrease pollution in local areas, resulting in spread of pollution at a higher altitude, and acid rain on an international scale.[1][g-h]
  • After about 1900, public demand led the federal government to fight forest fires in the American West, and set aside land as national forests and parks to protect them from fires. This policy led to fewer fires, but also led to growth conditions such that, when fires did occur, they were much larger and more damaging. Modern research suggests that this policy was misguided, and that a certain level of wildfires is a natural and important part of forest ecology.[1][i]
  • Colorado tried to use affiliates to create a taxable nexus for sales tax purposes. Rather than subject all Colorodans to sales tax, Amazon got rid of Colorado affiliates. Not only did Colorado not get the sales tax revenue, they lost income tax for those affiliates. [This also happened in Illinois, where we are based. We were doing bestseller research at the time, with a weekly list of top books, and had to drop our Amazon affiliate link from the list of purchase options.] [2] [3]
  • The essential air service program was designed ostensibly to bring air service to rural communities. It subsidizes airlines for flying unprofitable routes. In order to get the subsidy, carriers must fly. Often they will fly empty planes back and forth. Not only does this waste money, it is terrible for the environment. It also exacerbates congestion at hub airports. [2] [3]
  • Use-it-or-lose it budget policies ostensibly lead to more efficient distribution of company resources. In reality, it's not uncommon for managers to blow year end budgets on frivolous purchases so that they don't lose it next year. [2] [3]
  • Password policies which require people to use mixed case, special characters, numbers, not vary old passwords, etc. Passwords that follow these rules are theoretically more secure. But because people can't remember them, they write them down or store them in a text file - both of which are less secure than letting the user pick a password he can remember. [2] [3]
  • Jann Griffith Hoke reported on “screwing up the native fish population in Flathead Lake” on  Follow the link in Notes to see the full story, with pictures.  In short:

    Flathead Lake is a large, pristine lake in Montana. In 1905, TPTB (The Power That Be) though it would be a great idea to introduce Lake Trout to Flathead Lake. It remained a minority species and things went along swimmingly for most of the 20th century.  [Indicating that TPTB can do this that are ok.]

    Then, about 30 years ago, TPTB had another good idea, introducing Possum Shrimp into the lake as an additional food source. But, Possum Shrimp were ambitious. They didn’t want to be just a trout treat. They wanted to eat, too. Their food of choice was Water Fleas.

    Thus began the downfall of the ecological balance and the foreigners (Lake Trout and Possum Shrimp) have taken over. Efforts to correct the situation have so far been expensive and largely futile. [3]
  • Mark Binfield reported on

    The employer-based US healthcare market is a perfect example.

    Much of the pathological healthcare system operating today in the US can be traced back to two government decisions. The first was the decision to impose wage and price controls during World War II. This had the unintentional effect of causing employers to begin offering health care as an alternative form of compensation to attract top workers. The second was a 1951 decision by the IRS to treat health insurance as a deductible business cost. This had the unintended consequence of making it cheaper (due to the tax deduction) to provide even routine medical care through an insurance model rather than a fee-for-service model.

    Insurance, as a payment system, only makes sense for large unexpected costs. After 1951 the entire healthcare system was slowly taken over by insurance, to the point where we think of not having health insurance as being almost equivalent to not having access to medical care.

    As a result we live with all kinds of inefficiencies and unfairness. Pricing is utterly opaque. Choices are limited. Incentives are distorted. The system is bloated with administrators whose only job is to decide who pays for what services (a moot question in either a fee-for-service or a single-payer model.) And all this from what seemed like sensible enough answers sixty years ago to wartime inflation and an arcane question of tax policy.[3]

Part 2, continues with some samples of unexpected benefits, a look at the causes of unexpected consequences and some hints on how to avoid or anticipate them – Notes for both parts appear at the end of Part 2.

For more information...

This post also appears as an article on

Stu Johnson is owner of Stuart Johnson & Associates, a communications consultancy in Wheaton, Illinois focused on "making information make sense."

E-mail the author (moc.setaicossajs@uts*)

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Posted: November 5, 2015   Accessed 721 times

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